Despite Legal Requirement for Annual Reviews, 66% of EPA Standards for Industry Date Back More Than 30 Years
Two thirds of EPA’s water pollution standards for industries are more than 30 years old, despite a Clean Water Act requirement that they be reviewed every year to keep pace with improving pollution control technology, according to a review of federal regulations.
For example, EPA’s standards for cement manufacturing plants have not been updated since 1977, even though commercially-available pollution-control systems have advanced dramatically since then. Standards for oil refineries have not been updated since 1985; and for rubber manufacturing, not since they were issued in 1974.
Because grossly outdated technology standards mean more pollution is pouring into waterways than the law should allow, the Environmental Integrity Project and 60 allied organizations, including Waterkeeper Alliance and Earthjustice, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan today demanding that the agency repair its annual review process to update its water pollution standards on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
“It’s outrageous that we have EPA technology standards for major industries that date back to the 1970s – when modern technology meant rotary dial telephones, Atari’s Pong, and Apple II’s with floppy disks,” said Sylvia Lam, Attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.
“As the Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary approaches, we are calling on the EPA Administrator to fix a system for reviewing and updating industry guidelines that is obviously broken and resulting in much more water pollution than should be allowed,” said Lam.
The letter acknowledges that the Biden Administration EPA, on Sept. 14, announced that it plans to update the standards for slaughterhouses and two other industry categories. But the letter notes that – more broadly – EPA has failed to update the standards for many other industries, and is not carrying out its annual review duties as required by Congress.
Kelly Hunter Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance, said: “The Clean Water Act requires elimination of all pollution discharges into the nation’s waters and directs EPA to require increasingly improving technology to achieve that objective. This is the heart of the law’s plan to restore and protect clean water and EPA simply has not done it.”
Earthjustice attorney Alexis Andiman said: “Technology has changed a lot since the 1970s, and it’s past time for EPA to catch up. EPA’s failure to update water pollution standards is illegal—and it allows the worst polluters to continue cutting corners at the expense of public health and the environment.”
Despite some progress, 60 percent of the rivers and stream miles that have been assessed across the U.S. fail to meet water quality standards because they are impaired by pollutants, according to EPA reports and data. That means that, with the Clean Water Act’s birthday approaching in 2022, fewer than half of the country’s assessed waterways are reliably safe and clean.
The 1972 Clean Water Act requires that EPA establish national pollution limits for specific industries based on the best available treatment methods, and then review these limits annually to keep pace with advances in technologies to reduce—and ultimately eliminate—water pollution from industrial sources.
In the 1970s and 1980s, EPA began to meet that obligation, issuing national water pollution limits for 50 out of the 59 industries currently subject to such limits. But since then, EPA has failed to lower these limits as new, more effective treatment technologies and methods become available.
EPA last updated limits for 39 of the 59 industries across the U.S. more than 30 years ago, and 17 of those date back to the 1970s. In fact, the average age of these national water pollution limits is 31 years old. That was about when the World Wide Web was first launched, and when Apple was still 17 years away from its first public release of the iPhone.
“Technology—including pollution control technology—has advanced dramatically over those three decades, and EPA—by law—should be requiring industry to keep up with that modernization,” Lam said. “But that’s not happening—and that failure by EPA puts our waterways and public health at risk.”
One example is water pollution from slaughterhouses, which are a source of millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution annually that clog waterways with algae blooms that threaten public health and rob the waters of the oxygen needed to support aquatic life.
EPA data show that the cleanest slaughterhouses across the U.S.—those that have adopted more recent commercially-available pollution control technology – have cut their nitrogen discharges more than two thirds below the industry-wide average.
That shows that the rest of the meat and poultry processing industry could improve, too. But EPA is not requiring this cleanup, because it has not updated the standards—technically called “effluent limitation guidelines”—for these plants since at least 2004, according to federal records.
Below is a chart showing the age of the effluent limitation guidelines for a few of EPA’s 59 industry categories across the U.S. The full chart showing the age of all 59 effluent limitation guidelines can be found in the letter to EPA.
EPA Water Pollution Limits for Select Industries (Effluent Limitation Guidelines)
|Limits for Industrial Category
|Year of Promulgation
|Year of Last Revision
|Age of Pollution Limit (years)
|Tar and Asphalt Manufacturing
|Mineral Mining and Processing
|Timber Products Processing
|Leather Tanning and Finishing
|Meat and Poultry Products
|Pulp and Paper
|Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
|Oil and Gas Extraction
For a copy of the letter sent to EPA, click here.
The list of organization signing the letter to EPA is:
- Environmental Integrity Project
- Waterkeeper Alliance
- Center for Biological Diversity
- Clean Water Action
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Food & Water Watch
- Sierra Club
- Environment America
- Animal Legal Defense Fund
- Waterkeepers Chesapeake
- Virginia Conservation Network
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation
- Chesapeake Climate Action Network
- Chesapeake Legal Alliance
- Cape Fear River Watch
- Friends of the Chemung River Watershed
- Patuxent Riverkeeper
- Potomac Riverkeeper Network
- Coosa Riverkeeper
- Hurricane Creekkeeper
- Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association
- Anacostia Riverkeeper
- Alamosa Riverkeeper
- Apalachicola Riverkeeper
- Assateague Coastkeeper
- Atchafalaya Basinkeeper
- Bayou City Waterkeeper
- Black Warrior Riverkeeper
- Cahaba Riverkeeper
- Calusa Waterkeeper
- Chattahoochee Riverkeeper
- Chesapeake Climate Action Network
- Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper
- Congaree Riverkeeper
- Lake Coeur d’Alene Waterkeeper
- Los Angeles Waterkeeper
- Matanzas Riverkeeper
- Mobile Baykeeper
- NY/NJ Baykeeper
- Ogeechee Riverkeeper
- Raritan Riverkeeper
- San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper
- San Francisco Baykeeper
- San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper
- Seneca Lake Guardian
- Snake River Waterkeeper
- South Platte River Waterkeeper
- Suncoast Waterkeeper
- Tennessee Riverkeeper
- Three Rivers Waterkeeper
- Upper Allegheny River Project
- Waccamaw Riverkeeper
- West Virginia Rivers Coalition
- Yellow Dog Riverkeeper
- Youghiogheny Riverkeeper
- South Yuba River Citizens League
- Kissimmee Waterkeeper
- Hudson Riverkeeper
About The Environmental Integrity Project
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.