Manufacturing processes – whether intentionally or not – can always produce waste products that end up as pollution. Environmental regulations have long sought to curb the negative effects of this. Like all things, this is often politicized, but when it comes to benefitting both productivity and the total standard of living of a country, sound environmental rules can have benefits to both of these ends. 

With the introduction of a new infrastructure package driving new discussions about the possibility of MACT standards changes in the manufacturing community, it’s important to consider the range of possible outcomes and how control systems may need to anticipate or adjust regulations that are often changed between one administration and the next. 

What’s most important to understand? The following:

  1. The Biden administration is expected to examine changes to the recently removed “once in/always in” policy that would expand the reach of MACT standards;
  2. Because of broad discretion provided by the US Congress, MACT standards have been politicized in the executive branch, meaning there is little stopping them from changing if the political circumstances are suited to it;
  3. Adequately efficient control technology can serve to reduce waste and not simply remove pollutants from the atmosphere;
  4. With tens of billions in proposed support for R&D, clean technologies and domestic supply chain potentially on the way, it’s important to consider what the best possible timing is for any control system reconstruction that could generate the most possible benefit.

Of note: this article does not constitute legal advice. Any decision regarding the applicability of MACT standards to your business should involve the appropriate legal counsel and specialized engineering expertise depending on the technology or process in question. 

What Are the MACT Standards?

MACT refers to “Maximum Achievable Control Technology”. The establishment of the clean air act provided that firms had to regulate toxic emissions (like heavy metals) from industrial processes and power stations. Section 112 of the clean air act enables the government to actively require the application of stringent control systems to processes that emit 10 tons/year of specific pollutants or 25 tons/year of a combined set of pollutants. 

The most well-known example of the enforcement of this enforcement is the EPA issued regulations meant to control mercury mercury emissions from power plants. Ultimately, the institution of a “cap and trade” system for Mercury was proposed but never accepted, while during the Obama administration subsequently proposed rules that limited the emissions permitted from coal and oil-fire power plants in 2011. 

An example of modified emissions limits for Sewage Sludge Incinerators (SSIs) introduced in 2011, meant to control the emission of particular hazardous compounds over the long term. Source: Industrial Furnace

How Have MACT Standards Changed Over Time?

MACT rules were actually softened in 1994, no longer requiring complex modifications to existing facilities. Only upon the redesign, addition to, or rebuilding of a large production line or process would the consideration of limiting toxic air pollutants above 10 or 25 tons per year come into effect.

This was conducted under section 112(g) of the Clean Air Act, which was ultimately directed to creating MACT rules that worked in consultation with industry. For instance, the expectation in 1994 was that by the year 2000, MACT rules would be introduced that would define “reconstruction” as changes that cost 50% of the cost of a new unit or production source like the one being rebuilt. 

At this threshold of expenditure, the stringent controls for air pollution had to meet the highest achievable technical standards available at the time of implementation. This could be considered an added cost for major projects, but also a significant boon for investment in new control systems, as well as materially substantial consumables and energy savings in the long term. 

What Is the “Once In/Always In” Rule? How are these rules applied?

The “once in/always in” rule was established in 1995 by the EPA to determine that once a facility was classified as a major source for hazardous air pollutants – based upon its potential to emit those pollutants – it could not revert to an “area” or below threshold source by reducing its emissions

This rule was removed in October 2020, prior to the Trump administration leaving office. While this provoked some concern among environmentalists at the time, an EPA policy memo in 2018 permitted several states to repermit facilities from “major” to “area” pollutant emitters despite the risk that that repermitting would be voided upon reinterpretation by the EPA.

In these circumstances, the rule’s motivation under the law may have served to more urgently encourage facilities to reduce their emissions so as not to be qualified as major emitters – “once you’re in, it’s over for you, so you better fix it”, so to speak. At the same time, such a rule may discourage overall emissions reductions by not permitting polluters who actually complied with regulations to reduce their emissions as much as possible because it would relieve them of having to comply with MACT standards at every significant facilities change. 

In the context of surface coatings, for example, a long list of chemicals must be limited to less than .1% of total mass of coatings in order to not contribute to the total HAP (Hazardous Air Pollutant) emissions count of a particular facility. Most facilities that could be classified as major polluters would be working at a large scale, and likely serve as critical hubs of industrial infrastructure which could not simply be retrofitted on a whim. Ensuring that that infrastructure could not make modest adaptations going forward by never achieving reclassification could have potentially increased total HAP emissions in the long term. 

SEE THE FULL LIST OF EPA MACT STANDARDS HERE

What Changes Are Coming to MACT Standards Next?

On some level, it is considered possible that the Biden administration will reintroduce the “once in/always in” rules interpretation of the mid 90s. While the rules change was a long time coming when it finally arrived in 2020, the intensity and broadness of political moods towards the environment could or could not sweep this rule up into a new era of uncertainty. 

There are a variety of cases that will go undefended and regulations rescinded as a result of a new political administration, with “once in/always in” and cost benefit analysis regulations again becoming a political football while at this point only serving to create more uncertainty for manufacturers. As the industrials investment cycle and reshoring picks up, creating the need for certainty in the future in order to ensure that investments are maximized.

In order to adapt to this, companies need to think about how they can anticipate more aggressive MACT standards in a cost-effective way – or simply accelerate their investments to avoid concern of pre-existing systems altogether. 

How Can Companies Adapt to Changing MACT Standards?

Incorporating MACT-equivalent systems before MACT Standards become a challenge is the first step to ensuring that there is no lag between installing new systems and meeting the needs of environmental protection. Reducing the total volume of materials used by incorporating more precise and consistent control technologies can reduce the overall risk of facing restrictive standards and – a more obvious benefit – reduce costs while improving the quality of the surrounding environment. 

Autonomous manufacturing robots can help here. Using technology built to help them understand skilled tasks and execute them with limited human oversight. This comes from a process of combining 3D perception, AI and the ability to follow process-specific models and instructions to ensure that complex and varied production lines – including those in high-mix manufacturers – can continually adapt to production needs while providing the quality engineers expect and the consistency and repeatability that robots provide.

Autonomous manufacturing robots can offer a new level of savings and safety for any aerosolizing and potentially toxic air pollutants.

Ultimately, these robotic systems also change the ventilation and control mechanisms that can be used by manufacturers. In reducing health and safety risks by displacing workers from being physically present during a production process, new forms of engineering and design can also be realized that permit the “Maximum Achievable Controls” to effectively eliminate the atmospheric risk of environmental toxins, achieving sustainability goals heretofore unrealized in industrial manufacturing. 

Omnirobotic provides Autonomous Robotics Technology for Spray Processes, allowing industrial robots to see parts, plan their own motion program and execute critical industrial coating and finishing processes. See what kind of payback you can get from it here, or learn more about how you can benefit from autonomous manufacturing systems.