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Sure, Inhaling Mercury Is Fine for Your Health

As part of the Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities series, NPR investigated the toxic air pollution being pumped out of the Ash Grove cement plant in Chanute, Kansas, a town of roughly 9,000 people.

The Ash Grove facility, which emits some 500 pounds of mercury a year when operating full blast, is not violating any air pollution standard. In fact, it essentially has permission to pollute the air with four times the allowed amount of certain toxic pollutants. The reason: loopholes in the form of permits that allow cement plants to burn hazardous waste as fuel. The problem:  these kilns can pump out several times the amount of lead, cadmium and mercury that is allowed by actual hazardous waste incinerators, according to NPR.

“The problem with cement plants that burn hazardous waste is that they are not designed to burn hazardous waste,” Earthjustice's Jim Pew was quoted in the segment saying. “In my view it’s a loophole for the cement industry.”

The EPA estimates that more than 100 cement kilns emit just over 23,000 pounds of mercury each year. Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant that is harmful even in small amounts. This is why Earthjustice spent several years challenging the EPA to set mercury emissions standards for cement kilns. And in September 2010, the EPA finally issued a rule.

The Chanute plant isn’t subject to these new standards, though.  Because it chooses to burn hazardous waste, it is allowed to emit far more pollution than the vast majority of cement plants that do not have a side-business of getting paid to burn other companies’ hazardous waste.  That is precisely why it can legally emit 500 pounds of mercury in just one year, a staggering amount of this highly toxic metal, and one that makes the Chanute plant the worst mercury polluter in Kansas and one of the worst polluters in the entire country.

One might expect that this situation would call for inquiries in Congress.  Instead, some in Congress are working to extend the same dangerous benefits to other polluters by repealing the rules that will keep ordinary cement plants’ mercury emissions under control.  That legislation, if it passes, would cause emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from cement plants nationwide to increase by a factor of 10.

The victims of this political pandering are residents like those in Chanute who wonder if cancer rates are in any way related to the toxic fumes they are breathing in. Chanute resident Jeff Galemore says that they’ve been told repeatedly that there is no problem.

But his father John Galemore, who owns an oil business in Chanute, has pushed regulators to investigate.

“We have no other protection than you people,” Galemore says to Kansas DEP and the EPA in the NPR segment. “You’re our front line and our defense. And all we’re asking is that you assure us with testing that we’re safe."

Yet, regulators have not performed any tests to ensure people’s safety. In fact Jeff Galemore is suspicious because regulators repeatedly have battled residents on the testing issue. They and other residents also question the “cozy” relationship regulators have with industry. And they have reason to be concerned since the Ash Grove vice president, Curtiss Leslie, is a former Kansas regulator who drafted the company’s first hazardous waste permit.

Does this not scream conflict of interest, anyone?

Chanute residents are not asking for much. Is the Ash Grove cement plant poisoning them? Causing them cancer? Giving their children asthma?

Yet regulators refuse to answer these questions.

 So, we have to ask: exactly what are they hiding?


Tags:  Air, Mercury