Health of thousands put on hold by weak agency action
Alexandra Allred. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
“…My son's school would be named in a USA Today report as being in the upper 1 percent of the most toxic schools in the nation—the same school I butted heads with cement plant executives about being under the toxic plumes while children were at recess.”
– Alex Allred,
50 States United Clean Air Ambassador from Texas
We are taught as children to play fair and to follow the rules. Apparently, everyone doesn’t get the same life lessons. For communities in the shadow of cement plant pollution, the rules of engagement seem to change when it comes to Clean Air Act protections. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to both weaken and delay an already overdue standard to clean up toxic cement plant emissions.
The decision was legally indefensible with a federal court requesting small technical changes to the standard. These plants emit dangerous levels mercury, lead, dioxin, benzene and fine particulate matter (soot) and are responsible for up to 2,500 premature deaths each year.
Alex Allred, a 50 States Clean Air Ambassador from Texas, moved to Midlothian unaware of its designation as the “Cement Capital of Texas.” Unfortunately, Alex soon learned that the plumes snaking out of the stacks of local cement plants were definitely more than steam and that she now lived in a ring of toxic air pollution.
Her son Tommy developed severe asthma and attended a school directly in the path of the deadly emissions. With many local and state politicians unwilling to require cement plants to clean up their acts, Alex’s community and others looked to the EPA to set federal protections from toxic air pollution. In fact, Allred took her struggle to D.C. and reached out to a Texas senator and was denied a meeting. Her next move was a call to then-Senator Obama. She was relieved to be heard and planted a seed about the plight of communities across the nation. He vowed to help and when he became President of the United States, we all thought change had really come!
After finalizing the protective cement plant standard in 2010, the White House actually blogged about Tommy meeting the president and how they were “working to protect future generations by putting in place standards that will ensure clean, healthy air for all Americans.”
Now, 180 degrees later, we have an administration riding into a second term and giving some of the most vulnerable communities stockings filled with coal for the holidays. (Inhalers would have been more practical.)
In addition to delaying implementation of already overdue standards to clean up toxic cement plant emissions, the agency is also giving polluters a huge deregulation victory by finalizing a definition of solid waste so difficult to meet, that virtually anything can be incinerated with limited pollution controls.
What does this have to do with cement plants? Well the emissions from manufacturing cement are already toxic from burning fossil fuels, now communities must be wary of their local plant adding “supplemental fuels” like tires, spent solvents, construction debris, etc., to reduce fuel costs or create a new revenue stream as a glorified incinerator.
Just a week ago, we experienced an updated soot pollution standard and celebrated the promise of meeting the goal of improved air quality. Today, we see that even final standards can change and disappear without citizens demanding transparency. For industry delays are victory, for communities it can literally mean death or diminished quality of life. This setback will not go unrecognized or unaddressed.