It’s nice to finally be able to report that the Bush administration EPA has issued what appears to be a strong pollution-curbing rule on medical waste incineration. Although medical waste incinerators account for a relatively small amount of overall air pollution, they can have significant effects in the 57 communities where they’re currently located.

EPA estimates that if incinerators meet the new requirements, they’ll reduce mercury emissions by 637-682 pounds each year, and lead emissions by 361-420 pounds annually – good news the neurological functioning of children growing up near these facilities.

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin gets the reaction from environmental advocates:

Environmentalists hailed the move as an important precedent for controlling toxic releases into the air, saying EPA based its calculations on the availability of technologies to significantly clean up incinerator pollution. The facilities can install fabric filters to trap toxic particles or scrubbers to capture gaseous releases.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen them do an air toxic rule right,” said Jim Pew, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a Calif.-based environmental advocacy group that sued the agency over its initial proposal for regulating the incinerators more than a decade ago. “It’s a big cut in emissions.”

Earthjustice’s website also provides some context for the victory:

Today’s proposal is the result of a decade-long pursuit for stronger protections. In 1997, Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew represented Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council in a successful legal challenge to EPA’s weak air pollution standards for medical waste incinerators. Under the Bush administration, the agency delayed for years, until a second successful Earthjustice lawsuit forced them to revamp the standards.

This doesn’t negate the many ways in which the Bush administration has weakened environmental protections and adopted less-strict standards than science indicated were necessary to protect human health. And then there are all of the midnight regulations that the Bush administration is rushing to finish. ProPublica has a handy list of these, and they include refusing to regulate perchlorate in drinking water; preventing Congress from stopping a flood of uranium-mining permits for sites near the Grand Canyon; and letting the Interior Department improve construction projects with less concern for endangered species.

So, while the overall picture is bleak, at least those living near medical-waste incinerators can look forward to breathing a little easier.