Air Emissions, Toxic Releases Reduced, EPA Reports

Published April 15, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released reports showing air pollution and the amount of toxins released into the environment continue to decline nationwide.

An EPA report detailing the ongoing decline in regulated air pollutants from power plants announced emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) declined 4 percent below their 2017 levels in 2018. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from power plants in the lower 48 states declined 6 percent during the same time period.

These improvements occurred even as demand for electricity increased by 5 percent in 2018 as a result of strong economic growth.

“These data show that America is enjoying ever-cleaner air as our economy grows, and the U.S. continues as a global leader in clean air progress,” said Bill Wehrum, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, in a February 20 statement accompanying the report’s release. “Through state and federal fulfillment with the Clean Air Act, and advances by the power sector, we’ve seen significant reductions in key pollutants while electricity generation has increased.”

Long-Term Gains Continue

The report indicates the air quality improvement in 2018 was a continuation of a long-term trend. From 1990 through 2018, annual emissions of SO2 from power plants fell by 92 percent and annual emissions of NOx from power plants declined by 84 percent.

Going back even farther, the EPA reports from 1970 to 2017 the combined emissions of six key pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards dropped by 73 percent, even as the population increased and the U.S. economy grew by more than 260 percent.

Air quality in the United States is already sufficient to ensure public health, and ongoing reductions hurt the economy for no real benefit, says David Wojick, Ph.D., a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“Unfortunately, the reductions in NOx and SO2 emissions are both expensive and unnecessary, hence nothing to brag about,” Wojick said. “NOx is reduced by cutting power plant efficiency, in a hopeless attempt to push urban ozone concentrations below natural background levels.

“SO2 reductions are related to the old acid-rain scare,” said Wojick. “Decreasing SO2 emissions has been accomplished either by switching to low-grade, low-sulfur western coal or retrofitting power plants with expensive scrubbers. NOx and SO2 reductions have been part of the 30-year war on coal, so success is not something to celebrate.”

Toxics Declining As Well

In another report, EPA announced the release of toxic chemicals from industrial activities also continued to decline in 2017.

EPA’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) National Analysis, released on March 5, 2019, reports releases of TRI chemicals from the U.S. manufacturing sector have declined substantially since 2007 even though the economy has grown.

The latest TRI data, submitted by nearly 22,000 facilities nationwide, show continued improvement in pollution management and reduction. The report notes, for example, airborne releases of regulated chemicals declined by 11 million pounds in 2017, and air releases of TRI chemicals fell 57 percent at industrial facilities since 2007. In addition, since 2007, using such practices as recycling, recovery, and treatment, regulated facilities prevented 87 percent of of the nearly 31 billion pounds of regulated chemical wastes from being released into the environment.

Economic, Environmental Compatibility

EPA says its TRI report demonstrates economic growth and environmental improvement are compatible.

“This year’s TRI results give proof that economic growth and an improved environment can go hand in hand,” said Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Chemical Safety, in a statement.

The United States should get the credit it deserves for leading the way in environmental protection, says Jay Lehr, Ph.D., director of science policy at The Heartland Institute.

“This is incredibly good but not unexpected news,” said Lehr. “The public needs to wake up and recognize no nation works harder than the United States, through its industries and its government, to provide its citizens with the cleanest environment on earth.

“We have succeeded at this for decades now, but the press only reports our rare failures,” Lehr said. “It is time for Americans to stand up and applaud what we, collectively, consistently accomplish for the environment.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.