The Bush Administration's Environmental Protection Agency signed a rule late last Friday night that fails to control mercury pollution from any currently operating cement kilns, some of the nation's worst mercury emitters. The agency's action marks a clear and deliberate refusal by the Administration to obey orders from a federal court.
For more than six years, public health and environmental groups have been working to bring cement kilns' mercury emissions under control. More than 20,000 citizens have written to EPA to request protection against cement kilns' toxic emissions. In response to lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and Sierra Club, a federal appeals court has twice ordered EPA to set mercury standards.
"We're literally surrounded by cement kilns here in Midlothian," said Alex Allred, boardmember of the Texas-based group Downwinders At Risk. "Air quality here is sometimes so bad it makes it hard to breathe. My son is seven years old and has a severe case of asthma that started when we moved to this region. EPA's refusal to control these kilns' mercury emissions exacerbates a pollution problem that is already out of control."
In December, 2000, a federal court of appeals ordered EPA to set emission standards for cement kilns' mercury emissions. After the Administration ignored that order for almost four years, the Court issued another order that set a deadline requiring action this year. But rather than issuing the mercury standards that the Clean Air Act and the court's orders both require, the Administration instead set requirements only for future kilns and refused to require any of the nation's existing cement plants to reduce their mercury emissions by even an ounce. Although EPA did establish certain housekeeping management practices related to cement kiln dust, the agency did not expect these to reduce current mercury emissions.
"The court ordered EPA to set real limits on cement plants' mercury emissions," said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Club's National Air Committee. "Evidently, it offered these plants some suggestions about how to keep house."
The single worst mercury polluter in the entire country is a cement kiln in Tehachapi, California, which reported in 2004 that it emitted over 2,500 pounds of mercury. In addition to the Tehachapi plant, there are more than 120 other cement plants operating in America. Although federal law requires cement plants to report their mercury emissions, it does not require those reports to be based on actual measurements. Where kilns have tested their emissions, the data has shown their earlier "reporting" to be gross understatements of actual emissions. For example, a plant located in Alpena, Michigan, routinely reported emissions of approximately 50 pounds of mercury per year. But when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required the cement plant to test their actual stack emissions, it turned out the kiln was really emitting 581 pounds of mercury. A similar instance of underreporting has been uncovered at a cement plant in Oregon, which is the nation's third worst mercury polluter.
"If reporting from the rest of the cement industry is as inaccurate as the reporting from Alpena, this industry could be putting out between 25 and 50 tons of mercury every year," said Jane Williams, Chair of Sierra Club's Air Toxics Task Force. "That would put cement kilns in the same category as coal-fired power plants, which have long been recognized as the worst culprit for mercury contamination."
Mercury is a dangerous and powerful neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in young and unborn children and newborns. EPA estimates that 15% of women of childbearing age, or one out of every six, have unsafe mercury levels in their blood.
"Despite a deliberate campaign by the Administration and EPA to portray cement kilns' mercury emissions as impossible to control, there are many available control methods. EPA's own data show that there are many different measures by which kilns could control their emissions if they wished to do so," said James Pew, an Earthjustice attorney. "But they'd rather keep the money than spend it on pollution controls."
"EPA has ignored this problem for too long," Sinclair added. "Mercury pollution from cement kilns must be limited. Ironically, more than 80% of the cement production in America is foreign owned, and at least one of these foreign companies already has installed mercury controls in its home country."
Ignoring the law and the courts is nothing new to EPA's air toxics program. This July, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report chastising the agency for failing to follow the requirements Congress added to the Clean Air Act in 1990 to reduce more than 180 toxic air pollutants from 200 different industries. One month later, a federal court found EPA's ongoing failure to set air toxics standards "grossly delinquent," and noted that "EPA has fulfilled its statutory duties only when forced by litigation to do so."
Just days before issuing its do-nothing mercury rule, EPA met with the Portland Cement Association and the White House Office of Management and Budget to hear industry's request that mercury emissions not be regulated. The November 30, 2006 meeting is recorded on OMB's website.
"While EPA is off meeting with industry representatives at the eleventh hour before this rule is due, people who live next to these kilns are eating mercury-contaminated fish," Williams said. "There was never any meeting between EPA and the people being poisoned by these emissions, unfortunately."
"We have two big problems here," said Pew. "One problem is the massive amounts of mercury that cement kilns are being allowed to emit. The other is an administration that thinks it is above the law."