EPA Do-Nothing Rule on Cement Kiln Mercury Pollution Ignores Court Order, Public Outcry

Environmental and public health activists back in court to challenge EPA's latest refusal to control toxic mercury emissions


James Pew, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

Environmentalists challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest refusal to limit cement kilns’ mercury emissions late last week in a federal lawsuit against the EPA. Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club, Downwinders At Risk (Texas), the Huron Environmental Activist League (Michigan), Friends of Hudson (New York), Desert Citizens Against Pollution (California) and Montanans Against Toxic Burning in the lawsuit. New York state is also expected to challenge this rule in a separate lawsuit today.

The groups filed the lawsuit February 16 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In December 2000, a federal court found that EPA’s refusal to control cement kilns’ mercury emissions violated the Clean Air Act, and ordered the agency to set the missing standards. Six years later, EPA has issued only do-nothing housekeeping requirements that will have “essentially … zero” impact on the kilns’ toxic pollution. The agency estimates that approximately 118 cement kilns emit over 11,000 pounds of mercury each year, making cement kilns one of the largest sources of mercury pollution. The nation’s single largest mercury polluter of any kind is a cement kiln in southern California, which emitted over 2,500 pounds of mercury in 2004.

“Once again the EPA has failed to put public health first,” said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director. “The agency ignored the law. They have ignored the courts and they have ignored public health for too long.  It’s time for the EPA to do what they should have been doing all along — reducing the toxic mercury pollution that is harming our health and the health of our children.”

In addition to defying the Clean Air Act and repeated court orders, EPA’s refusal to set mercury standards ignores the pleas of more than 20,000 people who wrote to the agency urging EPA to finally bring cement kilns’ mercury pollution under control.

“Under this administration, EPA’s disregard for Congress and the courts has hit a new low,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. “The Clean Air Act required EPA to set mercury standards for cement kilns almost a decade ago. A federal court ordered EPA to issue those standards six years ago. Still it refuses. This is an agency that thinks it is above the law.”

Mercury is a dangerous and powerful neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in newborns and young children. Mercury pollution is deposited in waters and eventually ends up in our food supply. People are exposed to unhealthy levels of mercury when we eat mercury-contaminated fish. EPA estimates that 15% of women of childbearing age, or one out of every six, have enough mercury in their blood to put a baby at risk of cognitive and developmental damage.

“There is a very real, very sad human cost to not cutting toxic mercury emissions at these cement plants,” said Kathy Flanagan, a member of Downwinders At Risk and stepmother of an 18-year old ADHD/autistic son. “You hear a lot about the cost to industry to install new controls, but the human cost, the cost to families, and a clean future never seem to make it onto EPA’s ledger when the government is deciding what to do about so much mercury coming out of cement plant smokestacks.”

The EPA has been under fire recently for its failure to implement required rules to reduce toxic air pollution from a variety of industrial pollution sources. In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that blasted EPA for failing to take action on scores of specific pollution control measures that Congress required the Agency to complete years ago. Later that summer, a federal court found that EPA’s implementation of key toxics requirements in the Clean Air Act has been “grossly delinquent” and that, “EPA … currently devotes substantial resources to discretionary rulemakings, many of which make existing regulations more congenial to industry, and several of which since have been found unlawful.”

Just this month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held an oversight hearing on EPA, where chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), said in a statement that, “The pattern of these year-end actions is striking — the public interest is sacrificed and environmental protection compromised. Who gains from these rollbacks? Just look at who asked for them, like Big Oil and the battery industry. EPA’s actions and proposed actions make it clear who EPA is protecting.”

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