The message from the Environmental Protection Agency is clear - major operations that coat and paint plastic parts need to reduce their emissions of hazardous air pollutants by 80 percent.
EPA proposed regulations Dec. 4 aimed at making dramatic cuts in emissions of about 190 pollutants in plastic operations. For now, the measure covers only about 200 plants that do a lot of painting and coating, but government officials eventually plan to broaden it to cover much of the rest of the industry.
Reaction to the news was mixed. The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. said it had not gotten a lot of feedback from its members and did not want to comment, and one large truck manufacturing company said the new emission limits are ``attainable.''
But others see the proposal less benignly. Charles Millwood, facility and environmental manager at Mack Molding Co.'s plant in Inman, S.C., said the rule is likely to force his custom injection molding plant to adopt costly pollution-control equipment to cope with the paint and coating demands of customers, or reduce productivity in a bid to lower emissions.
``This new standard is extremely tight,'' said Millwood. ``A lot of our customers recommend a certain paint, and these paints are already formulated. We don't put the [hazardous air pollutants] in them - that is the way they already come.''
The proposal is part of a broad EPA effort across many industries to reduce pollution from HAPs such as toluene and xylenes, which environmental regulators say are linked to health problems like birth defects. The regulation also will reduce air emissions of chemicals that contribute to ground-level smog, the EPA said.
To set the lower levels, the EPA determines how much is emitted by the cleanest 12 percent of factories within an industry, and then gives the rest of the companies three years to come into compliance. That process is set by the Clean Air Act.
For Mack's Inman plant, for example, that means reducing emissions by about 75 percent, Millwood said.
Kim Teal, the EPA environmental protection specialist in charge of the standard, said she expects most companies to switch coating materials to comply. There is not much pollution-control ``add on'' equipment available for companies covered by the plastic part coating standard, she said.
International Truck and Engine Corp.'s assembly and painting plant in Springfield, Ohio, has been able to find more environmentally friendly substitutes, such as HAP-free paints, according to Tim McDaniel, environmental health and safety manager for the plant.
``We and many other companies that were paying attention to the rules since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 [found] there were advantages to going out and looking at reformulations,'' he said. ``I'm not going to say it's not tough, but there are enough companies out there that have demonstrated that low-HAP formulas are attainable.''
International Truck started working with its suppliers in 1993 and found new paints by 1995, he said.
But Millwood said that for custom manufacturers like Mack, compliance will be more complicated because ``99 percent of the time'' their customers specify the type of paint to be used.
``If we have no means of reducing the HAPs per pound, the only thing we have left is to reduce the parts we produce,'' he said.
Teal said the EPA estimates it will cost each affected plant about $53,000 a year to meet the regulations, but Millwood said an abatement system could cost his company several million dollars.
The regulation applies only to factories that emit at least 25 tons of toxins per year, or at least 10 tons of any one toxin. It does not apply to in-mold coating.
The regulation covers plastic coating done in a range of industries, including automotive, cellular phones and computers.
But it does not include coating done as part of the assembly for finished products in industries like appliances and aerospace, which have their own air-emission standards.
Teal said EPA officials were surprised that only about 200 facilities around the country are likely to be affected by this stage of the regulation. She said the plan to expand the rule in a few years to cover smaller coating operations probably will bring in much more of the plastics processing industry.
Companies have until Feb. 3 to submit comments. The EPA anticipates finishing the rule by August.