Mercury Pollution from New York Cement Kilns Endangering Public Health

NYSDEC must include mercury limits in operating permits for Lafarge and other cement kilns


 Keri Powell, Earthjustice, (212) 791-1881
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

Mercury pollution is dangerous to our health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 in 6 women of childbearing age have mercury levels in their blood high enough to harm fetal development. New Yorkers are routinely warned to avoid eating fish caught in local lakes and rivers. Even at low exposure levels, mercury can cause developmental disorders in utero and during early childhood.

Despite this obvious threat, there presently are no limits on mercury emissions from New York’s three cement plants. These three plants account for nearly half the total of annual mercury emissions from all 26 of the state’s coal-fired power plant boilers, making them some of the state’s biggest mercury sources. Recent reports show the Lafarge cement plant in Ravena to be the state’s biggest mercury polluter.

“Mercury is a very dangerous metal, which is changed into methyl mercury, the most dangerous form, which forms in sediments and concentrates in fish that people then eat,” said Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. “Methyl mercury causes loss of IQ and shortened attention span in children and increases risk of heart disease in adults.”

Environmental and public health advocates joined in Albany today to push the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to limit mercury pollution from the Lafarge cement plant and to test the state’s other cement kilns for their mercury output. Lafarge reported in 2002 emitting only 40 pounds of mercury from its smokestacks. But testing conducted in 2003 revealed that the plant actually released about 400 pounds of mercury into the air each year. It only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury to contaminate a 25-acre lake.

“Unfortunately for residents of the Hudson Valley and Western New England, we are the downwind recipients of the emissions from these three cement kilns,” said Warren P. Reiss, General Counsel for Scenic Hudson. “We at Scenic Hudson add our voice to the call on Commissioner Grannis to impose meaningful permit conditions for all these facilities.”

The New York State Department of Health advises people to avoid eating fish from 93 lakes, rivers or streams throughout New York, “because some of these foods contain chemicals at levels that may be harmful to health.”

The U.S. EPA recently released 2006 emissions data in its Toxic Release Inventory program. The Lafarge cement kiln in Ravena was the state’s biggest source of mercury pollution into the air, pumping out nearly three times as much as the state’s second biggest mercury polluter, the coal-fired Huntley power plant in Tonawanda, near Buffalo.

“Cement kilns are notorious polluters of our air and our water,” said Laura Haight, NYPIRG’s senior environmental associate. “Commissioner Grannis should blow the whistle on these facilities and require them to cut their mercury emissions down by at least 90%.”

“The DEC should seize this opportunity to regulate one of the biggest sources of mercury pollution in New York State — cement plants,” said Jackson Morris, Government Affairs Associate for Environmental Advocates of New York. “Failing to put responsible mercury limits on cement kilns, such as the LaFarge Plant, does not reconcile with the agency’s obligation to protect the health of New Yorkers and the health of our air, water and land.”

In addition to including mercury limits in the Lafarge operating permit, the groups are calling on NYSDEC to also require mandatory emissions testing at the other two cement kilns in New York, the St. Lawrence and Lehigh cement plants. Across the country, cement kilns drastically underreport their mercury emissions mostly because there is no federal mandate to test for mercury emissions. It was not until states required testing at certain individual kilns that the truth came out about their mercury pollution.

“New York’s cement kilns are the state’s silent mercury polluters,” said Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell. “For years, the Lafarge cement kiln has gotten a free pass from the federal government, which has neglected to set a national standard limiting mercury pollution from the cement industry. It’s time for New York to step in and stop Lafarge from spewing this incredibly toxic poison into our air.”

Today, NYPIRG and Earthjustice will deliver over 3,100 postcards from concerned New Yorkers to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, asking him to include the mercury limits in the Lafarge operating permit. Earthjustice has commissioned two billboards along I-787, urging NYSDEC to adopt the mercury standards for the kiln. The groups also reported that their members made over 1,400 emails, phone calls and faxes to Commissioner Grannis requesting DEC action on this issue.

“Every day that the State waits to act on this permit is another pound of mercury in our air, water and soil,” said Roger Downs of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. “The new permit obligations for LaFarge and other cement plants should mandate drastic reductions in mercury pollution through improved emissions technology and limits to high mercury fuels like fly-ash.” 

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