Advocates are cheering the new standards, which will cut mercury pollution from the nation's more than 150 cement kilns between 11,600 and 16,250 pounds -- a reduction of 81 to 93 percent. EPA estimates that the new regulations will save as much as $11 billion, primarily from reduced health care costs.
"EPA got it right," said Dr. Joseph Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance, "These new cement kiln regulations will save lives and money."
The hearing is being held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is one of three public hearings being held this week on the proposed federal standards.
Advocates hope the new standards will improve California air quality. California is the nation's biggest cement producer, representing about 13 percent of the entire cement industry, according to the Portland Cement Association industry group. A cement plant in Tehachapi, CA, had the dubious distinction of being the state's largest mercury air polluter in 2006, reporting to the EPA emissions of 586 pounds of mercury that year. And eight of the top 10 mercury air polluters in California are cement kilns.
"California communities living near these kilns have been bearing the brunt of the pollution for far too long," said Jane Williams of Desert Citizens Against Pollution. "The cement industry has had a free pass to pollute and it's time they started cleaning up. Their neighbors have had to breathe dirty air and eat contaminated fish. This proposal by the EPA is finally putting us on a path towards a cleaner, healthier environment."
A coalition of 15 environmental justice groups throughout the state have signed on to a letter thanking the EPA and encouraging the agency to adopt protective pollution standards for other industries. The letter will be submitted at today's Los Angeles hearing.
"We applaud and support the EPA's proposal. It's long past time to reduce these plants' toxic mercury pollution. The Lehigh Hanson plant by Cupertino, CA, is the fifth largest emitter of mercury of the nation's 150 cement kilns," said Joyce M Eden, West Valley Citizens Air Watch. "Our community is tired of the toxic plume raining down on us from this poorly regulated cement kiln. The proposed rule, if enacted, will finally stop this outrage."
The pollution cuts are being proposed as part of a court settlement reached between the EPA, California-based Desert Citizens Against Pollution, other community groups, and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Desert Citizens Against Pollution was represented in the court case by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice.
"We've fought for nearly a decade to protect communities plagued by pollution from these kilns," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. "We're heartened by EPA's commitment to cleaning up these pollution sources and we hope the cement industry will do the right thing and abide by these new rules."
The EPA proposal seeks to limit, for the first time, kilns' emissions of the acid gas hydrochloric acid which acts as a lung irritant and other highly toxic pollutants such as benzene. In addition, they will significantly reduce cement kilns' emissions of particulate (PM) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution, pollutants which damage heart and lung function.
Although cement kilns have avoided controlling their mercury pollution until now, they are one of the largest sources of mercury emissions nationwide and the worst mercury polluters in some states. But kilns can curb their mercury emissions by using cleaner raw materials, cleaner fuels, and readily available technology like scrubbers and activated carbon injection.
The new rules would also require cement kilns to monitor their mercury emissions for the first time. In the past, the industry has been notoriously lax about reporting these emissions: a study last summer ("Cementing a Toxic Legacy?") from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that cement kilns emit mercury pollution at more than twice the level estimated as recently as 2006 by the EPA, which only started to collect data on the problem in 2007.
Mercury is dangerous in even very small doses; one-seventieth of one teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake and make the lake's fish unsafe to eat. But a study in 2004 by the University of Florida found that when mercury pollution is reduced, ecosystems can indeed bounce back, documented by reduced mercury levels in fish and certain bird species within just a few years.
A dangerous neurotoxin, mercury interferes with the brain and nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of American women of childbearing age have mercury in their bodies at levels high enough to put their babies at risk of birth defects, loss of IQ, learning disabilities and developmental problems. The build up of mercury in aquatic systems and the resulting fish contamination undercuts the million-job industry supported by the nation's 45 million recreational fishers and renders a portion of the hard-won catch unfit for human consumption.
For a report documenting the recreation fishing economic engine, please visit Sportfishing in America: An Economic Engine and Conservation Powerhouse