Four years ago, a US Federal judge ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on the amount of mercury cement factories may discharge into the air. Today those plants, including seven in Florida, still are discharging mercury, with no legal limits. Environmental lawyers went back to court in recent weeks to get firm deadlines for the EPA to set those limits.
The agency’s refusal to act infuriates December McSherry, an Alachua County resident. She and her husband raise black Angus cattle within five miles of a Florida Rock Industries cement plant. Florida Rock discharges 147 pounds of mercury a year, according to EPA records. "This ... [accumulates] on the soil," McSherry said. "It’s going to have an effect on row crops and cattle production."
Segundo Fernandez, a lawyer representing Florida Rock Industries, called the company’s mercury emissions minimal. "Mercury emissions under the law don’t even have to be addressed with technology until you go over 200 pounds a year," Fernandez said.
McSherry was party to a lawsuit filed in 2000 by the Sierra Club and Earth Justice over cement plant emissions. The EPA hasn’t complied with the court’s order to set limits on cement plant emissions of mercury, hydrogen chloride and organic hazardous pollutants.
The EPA did not answer The Tampa Tribune’s questions regarding the latest legal action to set deadlines, called a writ of mandamus. Instead, the agency sent a statement saying it is reanalyzing what would constitute the best available technology to control pollutants from cement factories. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments require that cement plants achieve the maximum possible reductions in airborne pollutants.
"The reanalysis involved complex technological and economic considerations," the EPA statement says. "A proposal date has not been set. The court imposed no deadline."
Mercury, a neurotoxin, is especially dangerous to the brains and nervous systems of infants, small children and fetuses. It becomes airborne when electric power plants and cement kilns burn coal. The metal then descends onto nearby rivers, streams and lakes, where it enters the food chain. Most fresh-water bodies in Florida have fish consumption advisories for mercury, including the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers near McSherry’s farm.
Cement mills in Florida are Rinker-Florida Crushed Stone and two CEMEX plants, all in Brooksville; Rinker Cement and Titan Industries-Tarmac, both in Miami-Dade County; Florida Rock Industries in Alachua County; and Suwannee American Cement in Suwannee County.
The Sierra Club has been battling the EPA over this issue since 1997. That was the deadline Congress set in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments for the agency to issue emission limits for cement plants. When the EPA failed to meet the deadline, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit. The EPA settled by signing a consent order in which it agreed to issue emission standards for cement plants by May 15, 1999.