WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal appeals court ordered the government Tuesday to rewrite standards for hazardous waste-burning incinerators and cement kilns, ruling that the nation lacks proper limits on airborne emissions of dioxins, mercury and metals.
Since the standards ``fail to reflect the emissions achieved in practice by the best-performing sources as required by the Clean Air Act,'' the justices ordered them scrapped and sent back to the EPA for another look.
Environmental groups hailed the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia as a victory toward protecting people and the environment from air toxins.
They said incinerators and cement kilns that burn hazardous waste _ the ruling lists dioxins, mercury, particulate matter, chlorine, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic and beryllium _ are among the most dangerous sources of air pollution.
``EPA refused to establish the strict controls for these polluters that the Clean Air Act requires,'' said James Pew, an attorney for the Earthjustice environmental law firm that filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club to challenge the EPA over 1999 regulations.
Under the ruling, EPA will now be required to come up with new regulations. The EPA had no immediate comment.
The incinerators are used exclusively for burning hazardous waste. Cement kilns are the furnaces that produce Portland cement, the active ingredient in concrete.
Operating at more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the kilns run on fuels such as coal, hazardous waste and scrap tires. Most of what cement kiln operators consider fuel-quality hazardous waste comes from industry paints, solvents and adhesives.
More than 230 million tons of hazardous waste are generated by the United States each year and cement makers burn at least 1 million tons of that annually as an alternative to more expensive fuels such as coal, according to industry estimates.
Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club's waste committee, said the dangers posed by the air pollutants come from settling in water, crops and gardens, where they persist for decades and accumulate in the food chain.
Some of the health threats are believed to include cancer, birth defects and damage to the reproductive, immune and respiratory systems.
An industry spokesman said the ruling would have almost no effect from an environmental standpoint, however.
``Most of these facilities have been in business for a long time,'' said Mike Benoit, executive director of the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition, which filed suit to overturn the standards. ``They're already taking steps to meet the standards.''
The coalition, a Washington-based trade association representing about 100 facilities nationwide, filed suit complaining some of the regulations and other provisions were too stringent and the agency failed to properly base its standards on emission limits under the Clean Air Act.
The EPA has been regulating incinerators for more than two decades and cement kilns for the past 10 years, soon after they came into use.
In 1999, the agency issued standards limiting emissions from incinerators that destroy hazardous waste, cement kilns that use it as fuel to make cement and lightweight aggregate kilns that use it as fuel to produce concrete as a building material.
They account for four-fifths of the hazardous waste burned in the United States each year.
While the court ruled for industry, the justices said they based their decision on arguments supplied by the Sierra Club, which had intervened in the case. Dow Chemical Company had intervened on behalf of the EPA.
``We believe the rule was significantly flawed in many ways,'' Benoit said. ``The court decision gives everybody another bite of the apple.''