The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a settlement today that will put in motion long-awaited plans to adopt mercury air pollution limits for cement kilns. The standards, to be proposed by March 2009, will regulate emissions from the nation's more than 150 cement kilns.
Today's news follows a decade of delay by the agency and represents a hard-fought victory for environmental advocates and states who have long pushed EPA to act. The agency will finally address mercury pollution from cement kilns as part of a court settlement reached between EPA and the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
"Cement plants are among the worst mercury polluters in this country," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. "We're relieved to see that at long last, EPA is taking this issue seriously."
Earthjustice has represented Sierra Club and community groups in Maine, Michigan, Montana and Texas in a string of lawsuits aimed at forcing EPA to set limits for airborne mercury pollution from cement kilns for nearly a decade. Such limits were due under the federal Clean Air Act in 1997. In spite of repeated legal challenges and a court order in 2000, EPA has yet to set any limits on airborne mercury pollution from cement kilns.
A study last summer from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) documented the consequences of the EPA's delay: Cement kilns emit mercury pollution -- a threat to the health of pregnant women and children -- 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.
The report -- titled "Cementing a Toxic Legacy?" -- drew on the latest EPA data, which found that the nation's 151 cement plants generate 22,918 pounds of airborne mercury each year. Previously, EPA believed that cement kilns accounted for about 11,995 pounds of annual mercury emissions.
EPA has not indicated how strict a mercury standard it intends to set. But the highly toxic chemical 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.
Mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin, 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 Ash Grove Cement Plant in Durkee, Oregon has the dubious distinction of being the worst mercury polluter of any kind in the country, emitting more mercury into the air than any power plant, steel mill or hazardous waste incinerator. In 2006 Ash Grove reported to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory that it emitted 2,582 pounds of mercury. Based on information Ash Grove submitted to EPA in 2007, however, actual emissions may be as much as 3,788 pounds a year.
- Lafarge North America, Inc., shows up on the Top 10 Polluting Cement Kiln list twice, at rank four and rank five with its plants in New York and Michigan. By Lafarge's own calculations the kiln in Ravena, New York emits 400 pounds of mercury per year.
- Lehigh's Union Bridge, Maryland, plant is located approximately 75 miles northwest of Baltimore. It is the fifth largest cement kiln in the United States, able to produce nearly 2 million tons of clinker annually. The Lehigh cement kiln at Union Bridge reported to TRI in 2006 emitting only 35 pounds of mercury pollution; but Lehigh reported in newly released TRI data for 2007 emitting 376 pounds of mercury. However, as reported in "Cementing a Toxic Legacy?" this kiln also has the capacity to emit as much as 1,539 pounds of mercury a year. This is particularly significant given the plant's proximity to the Chesapeake Bay.
- The largest concentration of cement manufacturing in the entire country is just outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex in Midlothian, Texas. Citizens of Midlothian are burdened by five plants operated by Holcim, Ash Grove and Texas Industries, all within a 6.5 mile radius of each other. Combined, these plants emit just under 200 pounds of mercury on an annual basis, and thousands of tons of other dangerous toxic air pollutants.
- In the San Francisco Bay Area, Hanson Permanente Cement operates a kiln in Cupertino, California. This kiln is located within a major residential area in close proximity to several Cupertino schools. It is also located within five miles of the San Francisco Bay, which is currently contaminated with mercury. The Hanson Permanente kiln reported emitting a staggering 494 pounds of mercury pollution in 2006 to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. EPA failed to include Hanson Permanente Cement in any of its information requests, leaving open the possibility that its mercury emissions could be even worse.
- The CEMEX kiln in Davenport, California is of similar concern. That kiln, located right beside homes and farms along California's coastline and only 40 miles north of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, reported emitting 172 pounds of mercury pollution to the Toxic Release Inventory in 2006. The Davenport kiln is one of those for which EPA refuses to release data gathered in 2007.
- The Lafarge site in Alpena, Michigan is a five-kiln plant, and in 2006 was the nation's third largest cement plant. These kilns collectively reported emitting 360 pounds of mercury in 2006. The Alpena cement plant is of particular concern because it sits on the banks of Lake Huron and in close proximity to residential areas of Alpena.