Mixing it up over cement plant pollution

Mixing it up over cement plant pollution
Published: 18 June 2009

A US federal crackdown on toxic air pollution from cement plants is generating blowback from the industry, and an official with the company that runs a kiln in Union Bridge northwest of Baltimore warns that the plant may be unable to meet the new clean-air rule.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to require cement plants, among the nation’s leading air polluters, to reduce emissions of mercury and other harmful pollutants by 70 to 90 over the next four years. In addition to curbing mercury, a known neurotoxin, the EPA is proposing tighter limits on cement plant emissions of hydrocarbons, hydrochloric acid and fine particles.

But in hearings this week in Los Angeles and Dallas, industry representatives are contending that the pollution reductions would be so difficult and expensive to achieve that they may undermine the US cement industry, endangering thousands of jobs. There’s a third hearing Thursday in Arlington, Va.
The Portland Cement Association, an industry group, has issued a statement calling the rules "excessively stringent" and so costly they could force many plants to close and make the US building industry import cement.

The future of cement making in Union Bridge in Carroll County is by no means assured, says Tim Matz, director of environmental affairs for Lehigh Hanson Inc, which owns the plant there. While Matz had said earlier that the plant should be able to reduce its emissions of mercury to comply with the proposed EPA limit, he said in an interview this week the company is not sure it can afford to curb the other pollutants as much as EPA wants.

"It’s hard to say right now if we’d be able to meet them all," Matz said, "but we’re investigating."
Environmentalists say the cleanup is do-able and necessary. James Pew, an attorney with Earth Justice in Washington, contends that what plants will have to do varies, but in most cases the pollutants can be controlled using "off-the-shelf" technology, such as better filters or emission scrubbers on their smokestacks.

And Pew notes that EPA estimates its rule will prevent 600 to 1600 premature deaths a year nationwide from reducing exposure to the toxic air pollutants it’s trying to reduce from cement plants.