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August 19, 2013

Environmental Justice Activists Look to Close Big Polluter's Loopholes

Birmingham 3A loophole is a polluter's best friend -- and today, community activists from fenceline communities traveled to Washington, D.C., to try and close one of them.

These concerned citizens were in Washington to talk to the Obama administration about updates to the so-called "startup, shutdown, malfunction" rule for industrial facilities, including coal plants and refineries. Existing loopholes in many states allow big polluters to skirt responsibility for huge blasts of toxic emissions that sometimes happen when a facility is starting up, shutting down, or experiencing a malfunction. For polluters that put the bottom line before the well-being of neighboring communities, this loophole provides a golden opportunity to release large amounts of toxic pollution without accountability.

While industry cashes in by abusing this regulatory exemption, it is low-income families and communities of color living next door to these coal plants, refineries, and other facilities that feel the brunt of the pollution. Earlier this year, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency put over 30 states on notice that they needed to update their standards for these pollution events. These loopholes were written into state reguations and are a relic of the past, dating back to when the EPA was first established and the agency was getting its regulatory sea legs. Now, big polluters are taking advantage of these loopholes, and the EPA is finally stepping up to update these protections and safeguard the health of nearby families.

On Friday, the Sierra Club joined community activists from affected cities in meeting with officials from the EPA and White House Council of Environmental Quality in D.C., where they discussed the extent of the industry's abuse of the exemption and urge for the strongest safeguards possible. The meeting included activists from Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit, Michigan, two places where polluters have traditionally relied on apathy from government officials.

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"These big polluters claim to be a part of our community, but it’s clear that they don't care about their neighbors when they continue to dump toxic pollution near our homes and schools that are making our children sick," said Rhonda Anderson, the Sierra Club's environmental justice organizer in Detroit, before the meeting. "Power plants and refineries will do whatever they can to avoid cleaning up their act, so it’s time for the EPA to close this dangerous loophole once and for all."

It's encouraging to see the White House sit down with activists whose families have been affected by industrial pollution for decades, and whose calls for action have gone ignored for far too long. This is a sign that the Obama administration's commitment to combating climate change includes prioritizing the health of low-income families and communities.

The White House has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to environmental justice, and this is an important opportunity to translate those words into action. As is always the case, industry will be pushing hard for the status quo, which is why these local residents traveled all the way to Washington last week. Closing this loophole for good will signify another big step toward moving the country to clean energy and safeguarding the health of our families and communities.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

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