The Environmental Protection Agency withheld pollution limits for cement plants' emissions of mercury and other toxic substances for more than a decade after the Clean Air Act made them a requirement. An Earthjustice lawsuit on behalf of community groups ended the delay and yielded clean air standards in 2010 that are scheduled to bring relief from cement plants' pollution by 2013.
But today, the EPA proposed to extend its unlawful delay by two more years, until 2015. The agency's new proposal also weakens crucial limits on cement plants' vast emissions of toxic soot, a mixture of fine particles that contains arsenic, lead and chromium, among other hazardous substances.
"We were on the cusp of a real clean air success story, but this action is a terrible plot twist—one that will cause unnecessary deaths and suffering in communities all over America," said Jennifer Swearingen of Montanans Against Toxic Burning.
The EPA has calculated that just by reducing cement plants' toxic soot pollution, the protections that are scheduled to take effect in 2013 will prevent between 960 and 2,500 premature deaths every year, as well as 1,500 non-fatal heart attacks, 17,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 130,000 days when people have to miss work.
Today, however, the EPA proposed two years of additional delay. By the agency's own calculations, this delay will cause between 1,920 and 5,000 avoidable deaths and 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 34,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 260,000 days when people have to miss work because cement plant pollution has made them sick.
Cement kilns are also one of the biggest sources of man-made mercury emissions—second only to coal-fired power plants in their output. Mercury is an extraordinarily toxic metal that damages the ability of babies and young children to think and learn. The EPA has estimated that more than 300,000 newborns every year may face increased risk of learning disabilities because of in utero exposure to toxic forms of mercury. The first-ever mercury limits that are scheduled to take effect in 2013 will reduce emissions of mercury by greater than 90 percent—which equates to more than 16,000 pounds a year. Today's proposal will also allow 32,000 additional pounds of mercury to contaminate American waterways and the fish that live in them.
"Further delay will have horrible consequences for public health and the environment," said Earthjustice attorney, Jim Pew. "If the EPA fails to put these protections in place by 2013, how do we know it won't delay and weaken the rule more in the future?"
Although the proposed delay alone will cause serious health and environmental damage, the EPA also proposed to greatly weaken the standards for toxic soot. The proposed rule would allow cement plants to emit almost twice as much particulate matter as the current rule.
The EPA issued the proposed delay under a court settlement with the Portland Cement Association. That case, however, was decided more than six months ago in a unanimous decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Nothing in the Court's decision requires that the agency's rules for cement plants must be weakened or delayed in any way. The EPA's voluntary changes to the rule come after numerous attempts by industry lobbyists to weaken and delay the rules in Congress were voted down.