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October 5, 1999

EPA to Act on Mobile's Top Pollutant

by Bill Patterson

In 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its first Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), an annual list of toxic chemicals that industries discharge. Pollution from the Acordis, formerly Courtaulds, rayon plant in Axis has topped the TRI for Mobile County every year since. The TRI also revealed the Axis plant among the nation's top toxic polluters. Acordis' main discharge is carbon disulfide, a solvent listed by the EPA as a dangerous chemical known to harm the human nervous and reproductive systems.

The EPA has never set any limit on carbon disulfide pollution, but this is about to change. In 1990, when it amended the Clean Air Act, Congress specifically defined carbon disulfide and 187 other chemicals as Hazardous Air Pollutants and required federal officials to set standards for their release. Congress gave the EPA a ten-year deadline to complete its work. Last week the Harbinger spoke with Bill Schrock, an engineer at EPA's Emission Standards Division in the Research Triangle Park In North Carolina. Schrock stated he was "writing a rule for carbon disulfide." Though it's nearly a decade since congress required EPA to set standards for the chemical, Schrock said the EPA was "just starting now" to set the air emission limit. He indicated this was because there are only two rayon plants in the nation: Acordis and Lenzing Fibers in Lowland, Tennessee.

Schrock indicated that the new standard will be based on what regulators call a Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standard. Schrock explained the MACT standard is not based on health or environmental studies, but "on the technology used in industry." He said to set a MACT standard, EPA engineers review the current manufacturing technology and pollution discharges from all manufacturers of a product. The agency then uses the "top ten percent" of such facilities to set the standard. Asked how, since there are only two rayon plants in the U.S., it is possible to set such a standard, Schrock said he will use another method. His options included "default to best of the two," set an average of the two plants or studying other manufacturers that release carbon disulfide to the air and then "transferring" this technology to the MACT standard for rayon plants. He did not indicate which method he intended to use nor what he estimated the new MACT standard for carbon disulfide might be.

Schrock stated that it would take four or five years before rayon plants have to comply with the new MACT standard. He said EPA will propose the MACT standard for carbon disulfide in March 2000, when the standard will be published in the Federal Register. He stated that a period will follow when the agency will take and consider public comments on the proposed standard. A year later, in March 2001, the EPA would implement the new air standard for carbon disulfide, and industries would have three years to comply. Asked when health and environmental studies would be considered in an emission standard for the chemical, Schrock said that EPA would let the new standard "run in post-MACT emissions" before such studies would be considered. While Schrock gave no indication what the MACT standard might be, a statement by then Courtaulds plant manager Brian Fulleylove, quoted in an April 1992 Mobile Register article, suggests what the rayon maker anticipated: "We have to reduce our air emissions by 90 percent. We believe that is feasible, and under the law, if we don't do it we're out of business." Using figures from the TRI, the Axis rayon plant did reduce its air pollution of carbon disulfide by 64 percent, from 42,300,000 pounds in 1992 to 15,100,000 pounds in 1997. A local spokesman for Acordis told the Harbinger on September 24 the company "did not feel comfortable speculating" on the action of the federal agency or the MACT standards, but stated the company "would study carefully" the proposed standard.

Another change that will affect Acordis is that under Title V of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, congress for the first time required EPA to review and approve the operating permits issued by states. The Harbinger spoke with Kelly Fortin of EPA's Title V Permits Office in Atlanta on September 23. Fortin indicated that, in the past, "EPA didn't look at state operating permits," and consequently, "there are many bad permits out there." But EPA will soon look at every state operating permit. Fortin stated that today, "when a state issues a Title V permit, the permit is sent to EPA for comprehensive review." EPA has forty-five days to object and tell the state how to remedy a permit's deficiencies, she added. The Harbinger has learned from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) that Acordis applied for a Title V operating permit in 1997, but the state agency had not yet issued a permit.

Fortin stated that she was "surprised" to learn that EPA was setting a MACT standard for the rayon plants because there were only two. She said that while she was not familiar with the Acordis facility, it is likely the Acordis' new operating permit would be issued by ADEM before the new MACT standard for carbon disulfide was final. If the MACT standard is not incorporated into ADEM's first Title V permit for Acordis, Fortin stated "the standard will be incorporated later" into that permit when the standard is final. She added that under EPA's "targeting scheme," EPA will examine "very closely" the state's first operating permit issued under any new MACT standard.

Ultimately, ADEM will implement and enforce the new EPA air quality rules for carbon disulfide. Last week the Harbinger talked with Ron Gore, head of the Air Division at ADEM, about the impact of the Clean Air Act amendments on Acordis. Gore indicated that of all the aspects of the new 1990 rules, "the most important will be standards set by EPA." Gore said he had "no idea" what the EPA's MACT standard might be. "It's strictly an EPA thing," but Gore added, "we are the ones that will actually enforce it." Gore stated it was possible that EPA might not toughen the existing ADEM standard. Gore stated that the state agency has already set an air emission limit for carbon disulfide at Acordis. Asked how ADEM determined this limit, Gore said that in the early 1990s the company agreed to reduce their emissions of carbon disulfide by fifty to sixty percent by January 1, 1998. He described that commitment as "almost voluntary by the company." Using the fifty-to-sixty-percent reduction in carbon disulfide emissions, ADEM calculated a 700 micrograms per cubic meter limit at the Acordis property line. Gore stated that the company had reduced its annual carbon disulfide pollution from "20,000 tons per year to 8,000 tons" with more efficient processes and "capture equipment." Asked if some of this reduction had come from a slowdown in the production of rayon, Gore stated that the company definitely releases "less pollutant per unit of production."

[Note: Information on health effects of carbon disulfide from EPA, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Technology Transfer Network]

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