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What Impact Will the EPA Clean Air Act Rule Have on Crematories?

June 2013 Update

When the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its Clean Air Act Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards for oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, the obvious question was, will this impact crematories?

EPA's rule is now final (April 2012) and according to Carol Green, environmental compliance counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association, the short answer is no, EPA's rule will have no impact on crematories.

Current regulation of crematories under the Clean Air Act falls to the states. The EPA's rule did nothing to change state regulation of crematories. The EPA decided against regulating crematories under the federal Clean Air Act almost ten years ago. According to Green, in 2004, when the EPA proposed rules to regulate "other solid waste incineration units," the agency proposed that crematories should not be regulated as "solid waste combustion units" because "the human body should not be labeled or considered solid waste."

In reconsidering its decision as to the regulation of crematories as solid waste incinerators and other issues raised on reconsideration, the EPA reaffirmed its decision not to regulate crematories. However, under the Clean Air Act, the states may enact more stringent requirements than the EPA. In this instance, most states have enacted regulations applicable to crematories.

To date, most states, such as Maryland, New York and Ohio, have set emission limits only for emissions of particulate matter and for opacity and not for oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, which are the subject of the EPA's rule with regard to the Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

"States generally require that crematories hold permits, meet specified design requirements to limit emissions and conform to certain operating requirements, such as maintaining specified temperatures in the chamber of the furnace, prohibiting the burning of particular wastes, conducting continuous monitoring of emissions and annual reporting," Green said. "Ordinarily before a new crematory can obtain a permit, it must demonstrate to the state environmental agency, either by stack testing or by providing a report of testing conducted in the state of a similar furnace model that emissions are below certain levels. The states usually require operator training."

Green noted that the underlying concept of this approach to state regulation is based on the premise that a crematory that is properly designed and properly operated will have nearly complete fuel combustion. "Although crematories can emit nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, along with organic compounds and carbon monoxide, complete combustion ordinarily keeps these emissions at low concentrations," she said. "Combustion is improved by keeping temperature, air input and burn rate at optimum levels."

The theory is that emissions generated by the combustion process are controlled by proper design and operation of the crematory equipment rather than by setting specific limits for emissions other than particulate matter and opacity, she added. "Controlling the temperature and exhaust gas flow rate within the combustion chamber is the primary means of effectively achieving low emissions," said Green.

On April 3, 2012, the EPA issued its final rule with regard to the secondary NAAQS for oxides of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Secondary NAAQS are designed to protect the public welfare from any known or anticipated adverse effects associated with the presence of a listed pollutant, in this case nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, in the ambient air. This includes effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, climate, and similar ecological impacts, as well as on economic values and personal comfort and well-being. "In its final rule, the EPA decided to keep the existing secondary nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide standards for protection against the direct impacts on vegetation resulting from exposure to the gaseous form of these two pollutants," Green said. "Although the EPA had considered new secondary standards, in order to protect sensitive aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems from effects due to deposition of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide (acidification and nutrient enrichment), the agency rejected adding any new secondary standards for these pollutants."

"One of the inherent difficulties that the EPA faced in setting this type of ecological standard is that the standard must reflect a 'geographically variable and deposition-dependent nature of the effects,' " Green said. "This makes setting national standards and industry-specific standards quite challenging."

EPA noted that it is considering setting a multi-pollutant standard in the future and that it plans to establish a field pilot program to evaluate air monitoring methods for indicators of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. "The field study would be conducted over a five-year period in a sample of three to give sensitive areas," Green said.

Green recommended that crematory operators periodically review state crematory rules to make sure their operations are up to date and comply with the current version.