U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, the Republican running for U.S. Senate, read from his party's usual script during a tour of the Cemex plant north of Brooksville on Wednesday.
The cement industry's problems are all about regulation, Mack said, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has embarked on an "aggressive campaign … that is destroying jobs."
This is an amazing claim. And, no, that is not a compliment. Because what really stands out in the decades since the Clean Air Act passed in 1970 is the remarkable lack of regulation imposed on the cement industry.
Until a few years ago, the EPA had barely made a move to enforce emissions standards for harmful compounds, including mercury, a neurotoxin known to stunt brain development in children. That didn't change because the EPA or President Obama suddenly embarked on a crackdown. It changed because of legal challenges by the environmental law organization Earthjustice.
And this started to happen in 2006, which, obviously, was well before Obama was elected.
It is true that new rules to limit emissions came out in 2010. But it's also true — proving how effective polluters have been in casting themselves, and not us, as victims — that Obama quickly caved.
This summer, the EPA decided it was unreasonable to start enforcing the Clean Air Act, as planned, a mere 43 years after its passage. It decided to wait a couple more years, until 2015, lest it unfairly catch the industry by surprise.
Of course, U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, didn't mind hanging out with Mack on Wednesday. Earlier this year, he voted for a meaningless bill to show he was willing to undermine EPA rules on cement plants.
After all, this is just "needless" regulation, right?
Hardly. The EPA has estimated that just delaying the new rules by two years could cause between 1,920 and 5,000 premature deaths, 3,000 nonfatal heart attacks and 34,000 cases of aggravated asthma.
There's also the state Department of Health's warnings about fish contaminated with mercury, which cement plants across the country have spewed out at a rate of 23,000 pounds per year. On the department's website, you can find "DO NOT EAT" alerts for large saltwater species such as king mackerel, as well advisories against pregnant women and small children eating bass and blue gill from familiar bodies of freshwater such as the Withlacoochee River.
So, yes, there's good reason for these regulations, and there's no reason to think they caused the drastic cutbacks in cement production across the country and in Hernando.
Sorry to have to go through this again, but apparently we have some slow learners:
It has been the collapse of the housing market. Cemex has repeatedly said so itself as it argued for lower property taxes in recent years.
And that collapse was caused by speculation, which in turn was at least partly caused by checked-out and/or intimidated regulators.
I guess it's possible that somewhere out there an industry has been crippled by excessive regulation. Maybe it really has killed jobs.
But not here. Not in the cement industry. And the next time Mack wants to showboat on this issue, I suggest he find a better stage.