The federal government is proposing, for the first time, to reduce airborne mercury pollution from cement kilns with new rules issued today. The new standards will cut mercury pollution from the nation’s more than 150 cement kilns between 11,600 and 16,250 pounds (or a reduction of 81 to 93 percent), according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Led by Lisa Jackson, the EPA Administrator newly appointed by President Obama, EPA is proposing first time standards for cement kilns of mercury, hydrochloric acid, and toxic organic pollutants such as benzene. In addition, the agency is strengthening the outdated standards for particulate matter to better control kilns’ emissions of lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals.
Local and national environmental and public health advocates cheered the news, which follows a decade of delay and represents a hard-fought victory for those who have long pushed for these mercury limits. The new standards are being proposed as part of a court settlement reached between the US Environmental Protection Agency, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice representing Sierra Club and community groups in New York, Michigan, Montana, California and Texas, and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Earthjustice prevailed 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.
“This is great news and is a promising sign that the new leadership at EPA and in the White House is serious about protecting public health and the environment,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. “By stopping pollution at its source, we can keep mercury from poisoning the fish we eat. Bit by bit, we can reclaim our nation’s waters and protect our children’s health and our environment from dangerous mercury pollution.”
Although cement kilns have avoided controlling their mercury pollution until now, they are one of the largest sources of mercury emissions nationwide and the worst mercury polluters in some states. But kilns can curb their mercury emissions by using cleaner raw materials, cleaner fuels, and readily available technology like scrubbers and activated carbon injection.
In addition to requiring kilns to cut their mercury emissions, the proposed rules also limit, for the first time, kilns’ emissions of the acid gas hydrochloric acid which acts as a lung irritant and other highly toxic pollutants such as benzene. In addition, they will significantly reduce cement kilns’ emissions of particulate (PM) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution, pollutants which damage heart and lung function.
“The Obama EPA is waking up to community voices which have been calling for years for protection from the cement industry’s toxic spew” said Marti Sinclair, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Team. “The spell which has enthralled EPA to corporate interests has been broken by the dogged persistence of Americans fighting for what is right.”
The new rules would also require cement kilns to monitor their mercury emissions for the first time. In the past, the industry has been notoriously lax about reporting these emissions: a study last summer from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that cement kilns emit mercury pollution 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.
Mercury 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. But a study by the University of Florida found that when mercury pollution is reduced, ecosystems can indeed bounce back, documented by reduced mercury levels in fish and certain bird species within just a few years.
A dangerous neurotoxin, mercury 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 build up of mercury in aquatic systems and the resulting fish contamination undercuts the million-job industry supported by the nation’s 45 million recreational fishers and renders a portion of the hard-won catch unfit for human consumption.