Putting the Squeeze on Methylene Chloride Emissions

A new clean air rule revs up training for auto refinishers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its final rule on emissions from auto refinishing operations. As a result, shops should expect to ramp up the time they spend on recordkeeping and training. The rule affects “area sources” of emissions; that is, those operations whose potential emissions are less than 10 tons a year of a single hazardous air pollutant or 25 tons per year of a combination of pollutants. Operations involving paint stripping, surface coating of motor vehicles and mobile equipment, and miscellaneous surface-coating operations are subject to the new regulation. This includes those who refinish autos or coat plastic parts and products.

The goal is to reduce hazardous air pollutants that affect public health in urban areas by tightening control over some of the smaller emitters. In other words, to regulate the many smaller businesses that, on their own, perhaps do not significantly affect the environment but, when taken together with other smaller businesses, do have a significant impact.

The rule does not apply to anyone who refinishes two or fewer vehicles per year, provided he does not receive any compensation. While the new rule is not as restrictive as some had previously feared, it does spell out some significant and specific requirements regarding how workers are trained, what they’re trained in, what type of equipment they use, and how businesses monitor and record emissions and emission control. Existing operations have three years to implement the changes, while new businesses have to be in compliance when they start up.

More Specific Rules for Coating Operations
Because EPA issued the rule, it is intended primarily to safeguard the environment rather than individual workers’ safety. That said, however, the safety of individual workers is included in the details of the regulation. It stands to reason that if shops curb environmental emissions, in addition to improving public health and safety, such action also will improve the health and safety of the people closest to the source of the emissions—the workers.

In some cases, EPA has left decisions on how to go about reducing emissions up to the individual companies or operators, saying they know their businesses best. For example, paint-stripping operations that use more than a ton of methylene chloride annually must have a written plan to reduce the emissions, and the plan must address what the companies are doing to properly store and dispose of materials containing methylene chloride. The EPA is not specific on what the plan might entail, only that it must include practices and policies that minimize methylene chloride emissions and optimize stripper application. Those operations that use less than a ton of methylene chloride-containing stripper also must implement practices to cut emissions, and their records have to back that up.

The guidelines get more specific when it comes to what’s required of surfacecoating operations, in terms of both equipment and training. On training, operators must ensure that their painters who use hand-held devices have been trained in techniques that minimize overspray as well as in techniques to safety select and clean spray guns. Guns can’t be cleaned with an atomized solvent, for example, but can be hand-cleaned as long as the spent solvent is captured and properly disposed of. Training certification is required, and workers must take a refresher course at least once every five years to keep their certification. Spray painters who have been trained in such techniques in the past five years can use that certification to demonstrate compliance but still must have the refresher course at the appropriate (five-year) interval. It’s important to note that painters who use brushes or rollers do not need the training. It’s also important to note that EPA has given employers flexibility in terms of whether they want to provide the training in house or send their workers to another site or program.

Equipment specifications for coating companies are many, covering everything from the type of spray gun used to the type of spray booth that is used, to the ventilation and filtering requirements.

Reporting Requirements
Regardless of whether businesses have been around a while or are new, all companies that are sources of these emissions must be on record with EPA or the state or local air pollution control agency. They must submit a notification that they’re aware of the rule and are or will be in compliance by the target date.

Additionally, businesses must keep complete and accurate records on training, filter efficiency, spray gun efficiency, methylene chloride annual usage, which paint strippers containing methylene chloride are used, notifications, reports, and compliance activities. EPA estimates the average shop will spend about six and a half hours each year on maintaining records once the full-compliance period is reached.

Good records will be the shops’ first line of defense and, for EPA, the first line of offense to ensure the rule is being followed. Shops should expect a fair amount of outreach early on as the government works to let businesses know about the new rule. However, after about a year of this, businesses will find less tolerance for procrastination or violations.

EPA Forecasts Net Savings for Industry
During the public comment period, some industry representatives voiced objections about the costs of the training, the equipment, and the reporting requirements. In every case, however, EPA says the new rule will in fact result in a cost savings for most businesses.

In terms of training, EPA estimates costs at $1,000 per painter but goes on to say it believes that estimate is inflated for multiple reasons. It notes that many facilities already require training for their painters—much of which is provided by paint companies to help reduce warranty claims—and the new rule doesn’t impose additional training costs. It also says that, according to industry data, properly trained painters can cut the amount of coating used by about 20 percent per job, thereby offsetting any increased training expenditure.

On equipment costs, EPA says outlays for the new, compliant spray booths, spray guns, and filters will be offset by increased efficiencies in both labor and materials. And on reporting costs, EPA again says the cost is too small to be of consequence, estimating an annual cost of $11 for some stripping operations.

It’s worth pointing out that the final rule does a good job of balancing environmental concerns with industry needs and flexibility. Revisions have narrowed the focus, extended the compliance timeline, and left many decisions up to businesses in terms of what management practices they institute to comply with regulations.

Revisions also reflect industry comments on equipment specifications, with EPA relaxing some of its earlier requirements to increase flexibility while still staying true to the intent and the purpose of the rule. As an example, EPA originally required the use of polyester fiberglass filters. Commenters demonstrated that nonpolyester fiberglass filters can obtain the same or better efficiency, often at a lower cost, and so EPA revised the rule to say that any filter can be used as long as it meets an efficiency standard of 98 percent or better.

Timeline Allows Phase-in
Although existing businesses have three years to comply fully with the new regulations, certain newer companies have just 180 days from their start-up date. As of the final date of the rule, all new businesses must comply upon start-up.

With a three-year timetable for full compliance, existing businesses should use this time wisely and work to phase in implementation. This is a way to spread costs, maximize training schedules, finetune methodology, streamline recordkeeping, and leverage efficiency standards.

This also would be a good time to talk with suppliers about what impact the rule will have on equipment cost, efficiency, and availability because they, too, will have to make adjustments in response to this rule.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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