The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday it would not require cement manufacturers -- including the nation's largest emitter, in Tehachapi, Calif. -- to upgrade plants to control mercury.
Cement kilns are an integral part of the building boom in Southern California and elsewhere, turning raw limestone and waste ash from coal plants into the material used to build highways, tract homes and commercial developments.
Mercury, which can be emitted when stone or coal ash is processed, is a potent neurotoxin that can harm developing brains. The emissions also pollute water bodies.
Environmental groups that sued under the federal Clean Air Act to force tighter controls said the decision ignored two court orders.
The EPA's ruling will require kilns built in December 2005 and onward to limit and measure actual emissions. The agency said that would reduce emissions by as much as 3,000 pounds, in an industry estimated to emit 6.6 tons of mercury annually. But the regulators said that upgrading existing plants would be too costly for industry and the resulting air-quality improvements would be too scant.
Parts of the decision, signed late Friday by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, closely follow industry requests to the agency. Industry officials also met with White House staffers Nov. 30 to discuss the pending decision, and EPA staffers phoned in to the meeting, records show.
The decision sparked outrage from environmental groups and residents downwind of kilns, who have fought for years to get stricter emission controls.
"The news today is not good. EPA has decided to let every existing cement kiln in the country emit as much mercury as it likes," said James Pew, an attorney with Earthjustice, which twice has won a court order requiring the EPA to set mercury standards for cement plants under the Clean Air Act. Pew said the agency had ignored the court orders and issued "the same measures rejected as unlawful more than five years ago.... EPA clearly thinks it can just thumb its nose at the law."
Eleven of the 94 factories with cement kilns in the United States are in California, including in Colton, Mojave and the Lucerne Valley. The single worst mercury polluter in the country is the Lehigh Southwest cement kiln in Tehachapi, which reported in 2004 that it had emitted more than 2,500 pounds of mercury, according to the federal Toxic Release Inventory. A company environmental officer declined comment.
Under the new rules, existing plants still must control dust containing mercury. Cement manufacturers will continue to be allowed to emit coal ash produced by power plants, as long as they do not use a certain type of boiler technology. No kilns in the U.S. currently use the technology, but some of the estimated 25 plants that may be constructed in coming years could use it.
"I think the bottom line is that we reviewed all the information that we were required to under the law," EPA spokesman John Millett said. "We weighed the information and came to a decision about what was feasible for existing plants under the regulation -- and we also issued stringent regulations on new sources."
EPA environmental engineer Keith Barnett, of the agency's air-quality planning and standards office in North Carolina, said it would cost a cement manufacturer "$1.5 million per year per kiln for a wet scrubber" that might reduce emissions by 42%, which he said was not a large enough reduction to justify the cost.
Marti Sinclair of the Sierra Club said $1.5 million would be a small price to protect the public, noting that one of the nation's leading cement producers had reported revenue of $1.1 billion last year and had already installed such technology in Switzerland, where it was required.
California and several other states had asked the EPA to require cement factories to monitor and accurately measure mercury emissions. Although federal law requires cement plants to report emissions, it does not require those reports to be based on actual measurements. Both industry and environmental groups noted that mercury content could vary widely in raw materials.
"There is no law or rule on the books that requires cement kilns to measure mercury emissions," Barnett confirmed. "They are required to report their mercury emissions.... They use whatever data they can find."
But when kilns have tested emissions, the data have shown earlier reporting to be "gross understatements," according to the Sierra Club. A cement plant in Alpena, Mich., reported annual mercury emissions of about 50 pounds, but when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required the plant to test actual smokestack emissions, the kiln was found to be emitting more than 10 times what the plant had reported.
"If reporting from the rest of the cement industry is as inaccurate as the reporting from Alpena, this industry could be putting out between 25 and 50 tons of mercury every year," said Jane Williams, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Air Toxics Task Force.
"That would put cement kilns in the same category as coal-fired power plants, which have long been recognized as the worst culprit for mercury contamination."
Representatives of three California cement plants declined to comment Monday, and staff for the Portland Cement Assn. did not return phone calls. Portland cement is the mostly widely produced and used type of cement.
In a statement, the association said it was studying the impact of the rule on the industry and on its plans for a $3.6-billion expansion -- including constructing plants and modernizing and enlarging existing ones -- to meet "record demand for cement."
"The industry will continue to conduct research to identify strategies for addressing mercury emissions and will share its findings with the EPA to ensure that industry standards are based on sound science and support our shared mission to protect human health and the environment," the statement said.
It continued: "PCA-member plants use state-of-the-art technologies to continuously minimize emissions ... while costeffectively producing a high-quality product."