USA: Tehachapi cement plant has one of nation's highest mercury emission levels

USA: Tehachapi cement plant has one of nation's highest mercury emission levels

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated Lehigh Southwest Cement plant’s mercury emissions as the second highest in the USA.

The Lehigh Tehachapi plant produced 872lb of mercury in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory data – the most of any cement plant in California and the second highest among all cement plants in the United States.

Over the years, the mercury emissions have been a particular source of concern and contention. Historically high, Lehigh's reported output of mercury fell sharply after a round of news stories and public outcry in 2006.

In 2007, mercury emissions had dropped to 144lb, and then began climbing again.

California is one of the country's largest producers of cement, with eight production facilities on the EPA's list of mercury emitters. As such, a debate in Congress over controlling emissions from cement plants could have a major impact on the industry in the Sunshine State.

The Obama administration and the EPA have imposed strict limits on some of the most harmful pollutants emitted from cement plants, including mercury. Under the new regulations, which are scheduled to begin in September 2013, plants will be banned from emitting more than 55lb of mercury/Mt of cement produced.

The cement industry said complying with the regulations could cost as much as US$3.4bn and force the closure of some plants, but federal regulators put the cost at less than US$1bn.

An industry review of cement plants considered most vulnerable to closure under the new regulations did not include Lehigh's Tehachapi plant.

However, given the size of the Lehigh plant, the new regulations are expected to require a substantial decrease in mercury emissions from the facility. The limestone mined near Tehachapi is naturally high in mercury.

"We're looking at a number of technologies and operating systems to see how we can best meet the new mercury emissions standards,” said Tom Chizmadia, a spokesman for the cement company based in Texas.

Andy O'Hare, vice president for regulatory affairs at the Portland Cement Association, said a cement industry study concluded that 18 cement plants could be forced to shut down because of the new regulations, with a total of 3000- 4000 jobs lost.

"Once you close down an industrial facility like this," O'Hare warned, "you're not going to reopen them."