BROOKSVILLE — Cemex has been slapped with a $525,000 fine for emitting mercury at levels nearly 10 times the allowable limit, and the company has been ordered to make changes to one of its Hernando cement kilns to alleviate the problem.
In an agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation last month, Cemex was ordered to complete a series of actions to bring the kiln's levels of mercury back within compliance and to ensure that no more violations occur.
State DEP officials said Wednesday they could not answer any questions about health risks posed to Cemex employees or local residents, and suggested that a medical professional be consulted.
But local Health Department officials said they had not heard about the problem.
"I had no idea there was any violation … of any of those standards,'' said Al Gray, the Hernando County Health Department's environmental health manager.
He said he would get in touch with the DEP to find out whether he needed to talk to the state's toxicologists about the problem.
Mercury is thought to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and young children. A neurotoxin, it can interfere with brain and nervous system function.
County Commission Chairman John Druzbick also didn't know anything about the DEP's consent order with Cemex.
"I have no information, nothing,'' Druzbick said. "I'm surprised DEP didn't shut them down. They shut down our dredge (at Hernando Beach) when we weren't in compliance.''
Druzbick said it was disturbing that the county wasn't notified. It is the County Commission's responsibility to maintain the health, safety and welfare of county residents.
"I would hope that DEP would inform us of what's going on,'' he said.
County land services director Ron Pianta also was not aware of the consent order. While the county gets air quality monitoring reports from the Cemex facilities, none were flagged to him as a violation. The county has no role in monitoring or compliance because those are the responsibilities of state and federal agencies, Pianta said.
The mercury emission problems originated with Kiln 2 at the Cemex facility at 10311 Cement Plant Road off Cobb Road, just northwest of Brooksville.
The permit for the construction of Kiln 2 was issued in July 2005, and work began in July 2006. It began operating Nov. 28, 2008.
In November 2009, a test on the kiln indicated mercury emissions of 408 micrograms per dry standard cubic meter. Federal standards do not allow mercury at levels above 41 micrograms per dry standard cubic meter for emissions sources constructed after December 2005, according to the DEP consent order.
Compliance was required by Dec. 21, 2009, but new tests Dec. 22 and 23, 2009, showed similar mercury levels to what had been seen in November.
"Since December 21, 2009, (Cemex) has been and continues to be in violation of the mercury emissions limit of 41 micrograms per dry standard cubic meter,'' DEP district director Deborah Getzoff wrote in the consent order.
The cement kiln exceeded the acceptable mercury level on 72 days. A mercury retest done on Aug. 13 showed that the mercury levels met permit requirements. Currently, Cemex is in compliance with acceptable mercury levels, according to DEP spokeswoman Ana Gibbs.
"Cemex constructed a kiln at its Brooksville south cement plant. Upon start-up, this kiln was subject to mercury limits in its air permit and also new federal regulations,'' Leslie White, executive vice president and general counsel for Cemex, stated in an e-mail to the Times on Wednesday. "Initially, testing showed the plant to be in compliance with its air operating permit and in compliance with the stringent federal requirements during mill-on conditions.''
But when the mill, which grinds the raw ingredients, was off, the mercury levels rose above the federal limits. That only represented 10 percent of the operating time, White said.
"As a result the company and the Florida DEP worked together to implement a compliance program,'' White stated. "We undertook process changes that were successful. With these measures, we have been in compliance. In fact, in August, we passed a test with results coming in far below the limits. We will continue to work closely with the state in adhering to a long-term monitoring plan.''
A legal notice announcing the agreement between Cemex and the DEP was published, but there were no petitions or challenges by the deadline.
Cemex paid the $525,000 fine, $5,000 of which was assessed to offset DEP's cost for investigating and monitoring the matter. The fine was paid to the state's Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund, which provides dollars to pay for the management and restoration of ecosystems and for surface water improvement and management.
Mercury levels emitted from cement kilns around the country have come under environmental scrutiny, including at other Cemex facilities, most notably a plant in Colorado.
In 2008, the Earthjustice Environmental Integrity Project authored a report blasting the EPA for failing to control mercury pollution from cement kilns. Since then, the EPA has enacted new regulations.
Also in 2008, EPA reports indicated that the Brooksville Cemex operation emitted 134 pounds of mercury, placing it among the top 20 cement kiln mercury polluters across the nation. That was the year the new kiln was put into operation.
As the Earthjustice report explains, making cement is a process that requires the use of fuels and raw materials high in mercury content. Rock is heated to more than 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and coal is used to fuel the fire. Both the rock and the coal contain mercury, a metal that evaporates at room temperature.
The mercury in the coal and the limestone vaporizes in that process, and much of it is disposed of through the kiln's smokestacks. The material returns to the earth with rain, converting it to a more toxic form called methylmercury. There it enters the ecosystem and is absorbed by animals and fish.
News researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.