After successfully defending a strong emissions standard for cement plants in both the courts and Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today did an about-face and handed polluters a two-year delay on a weakened cement kiln standard leading to much more pollution for communities living in the shadow of these plants.
Cement kiln in Midlothian, TX. (Photo: Samantha Bornhorst.)
“It’s baffling that last week the EPA claimed credit for protecting people with the release of the soot standards, and this week the agency gave a dangerous handout to industry that will cause between 1,920 and 5,000 Americans to die prematurely because of their exposure to cement plants’ soot pollution,” said Suzan Falzon of Friends of the Hudson.
Soot is not the only health hazard from cement plants. Living downwind of Midlothian, Texas, home to ten cement kilns, Becky Bornhorst became an activist for Downwinders at Risk to fight for clean air for her children and her neighbors. “The EPA is failing to protect our children, our families and our animals from mercury poisoning,” said Bornhorst. “Our children are already at risk for permanent brain damage and learning disabilities and instead of regulating every possible source of mercury, the EPA is giving the cement industry another free ride.”
“EPA’s weakening of the cement air toxics rule is extremely irresponsible, given that the agency is also now allowing cement kilns to burn a whole host of industrial wastes as ‘alternative’ fuels,” said Jennifer Swearingen, of Montanans Against Toxic Burning.
“Cement companies received a huge pollution gift card from EPA today! They can continue to spew dangerous amounts of pollution into our communities and reap the profits,” Says Jane Williams of Desert Citizens Against Pollution.
By the agency’s own calculations, the delay alone will cause between 1,920 and 5,000 avoidable deaths and 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 34,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 260,000 days when people have to miss work because cement plants’ soot pollution has made them sick.
William Freese, Huron Environmental Activist League, knows the risks all to well. He has been fighting to clean up the largest Michigan cement plant Lafarge for years. “ We now have to be concerned that the EPA decision on the Clean Air Act Rules will let Lafarge off the hook. The fact that they could once again go back to burning hazardous waste, as in the past, is unacceptable,” stated William. “As you know, one of the health risks for air pollution are heart attacks. As of last month I became one of those statistics.”
Cape Fear River Watch, North Carolina Coastal Federation, the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Cub, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Duke Law School Environmental Law Center and PenderWatch & Conservancy have banned together over the past five years to fight the proposed massive Titan Cement kiln near Wilmington, North Carolina.
Allie Sheffield of Penderwatch and Conservancy said ‘this decision does not only affect existing plants, it would allow for more soot and toxic mercury from a huge proposed plant like Titan. Since the EPA narrowed the definition of hazardous waste, they could burn all kinds of dirty fuels like tires, solvents and plastics.”
The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act mandated that major air polluters such as cement plants must limit toxic air pollutants such as mercury, hydrogen chloride, and organic hazardous air pollutants, among others. In 2000, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that EPA’s refusal to set these standards violated the Clean Air Act. “Twelve years later, cement plants still aren’t meeting any limits on their emissions of mercury and other air toxics and now EPA is going to make that 14 years,” said Jim Pew attorney for Earthjustice. “Every year of delay is one more year communities suffer.”
In 2010, in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of community groups living in the shadow of these toxic cement plants, the EPA finalized standards to significantly reduce mercury, lead, benzene and other toxic emissions from cement kilns by 2013.
In 2011, EPA successfully turned back the cement industry’s attacks on this rule in the Courts and in Congress. Last December, the agency won a D.C. Circuit Court ruling against the Portland Cement Association (PCA) (the CEO of Titan America, serves as PCA chairman), which had asked that the standards be thrown out. Industry-sponsored legislative attacks in 2011 to delay and weaken the cement standards failed in Congress as well.
Despite prevailing in court and on the Hill, today the EPA implemented a two-year delay of the standards until 2015. Additionally, they weakened particulate matter standards and changed continuous emissions monitoring (CEMs) to a stack-test once per year.
Cement plants also are one of the biggest sources of man-made mercury emissions—second only to coal-fired power plants in their output. Mercury is an extraordinarily toxic metal that damages the ability of babies and young children to think and learn. The EPA has estimated that more than 300,000 newborns every year may face increased risk of learning disabilities because of in utero exposure to toxic forms of mercury. Today’s final rule also will allow 32,000 additional pounds of mercury to contaminate American waterways, fish that live in them, and people that eat them. In 2008 Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project released Cementing a Toxic Legacy? that lays out how the EPA has failed repeatedly to reign in this toxic industry.
To see a map of all the nation’s cement kilns, visit Earthjustice’s Interactive Cement Kiln Map: