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EPA can seal clean air future with tighter rules on cement

Here's a surprise: U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent ignored me.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about a brewing movement to do a favor for the cement industry, which may not be doing quite as well as it once was but can still, apparently, afford enough lobbyists to get action in Congress.

I asked Nugent in that column to consider young children who are most susceptible to the tons of mercury and other toxins cement plants pour into the atmosphere each year and to not vote for this measure.

When it finally came forward this month in the form of the descriptively named Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act, guess what? He voted "yes" and the bill passed the House of Representatives.

Though most insiders don't expect it to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, Earthjustice lawyer James Pew said the industry's display of political muscle in the House makes that far from certain.

Well, I hope it doesn't pass the Senate because as much as the cement sector might need relief, I'm pretty sure babies and pregnant mothers need it more.

Here's the background:

For more than 35 years after passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency barely enforced the emission standards for mercury and several other harmful compounds from cement makers.

That started to change in 2006, when the EPA, responding to two successful federal lawsuits filed by Earthjustice (and litigated by Pew), set tougher standards for new plants.

The EPA standards produced last year, and going into effect in 2013, would finally crack down on chemicals such as mercury, benzene and formaldehyde and reduce the particulate matter by about 90 percent.

That last pollutant is, more or less, what you see coming out of smokestacks. It's also what sets off asthma attacks and, yes, kills people with respiratory problems. The EPA estimates the new standards would save about 2,500 lives per year.

The main problem with mercury is that it shows up in our waterways and, ultimately, the fish we eat.

Even small amounts can cause, among other disabilities, lower IQs in babies and toddlers.

And in 2000, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 8 percent of women of childbearing age had high enough levels of mercury in their blood to damage the health of newborns.

Cement kilns don't release as much mercury, nationwide, as coal-fired power plants, but they have still been a major contributor to what has to be regarded as a serious public health problem. Their annual releases peaked a few years ago at about 23,000 pounds annually, according to Earthjustice. In Hernando County alone in 2008, when both Cemex plants were running full steam, EPA reports showed they released more than 200 pounds of mercury.

Here's what the industry has to say for itself:

Improving plants to comply with the rules will cost cement makers $3.4 billion, nearly half their combined annual revenues. This at a time when the industry is reeling, especially in Florida, where plants are operating at about half of capacity; the two in Hernando, taken together, are producing an even a lower percentage of their potential output than that.

Stricter regulation would force some plants to shut down, opening up more of the market for foreign manufacturers, especially from China, by far the world's largest producer.

And the industry doesn't want to do away with regulations — just put them off for a few years until it has recovered enough to pay for the improvements.

The EPA, on the other hand, puts the cost of compliance at $1 billion, a figure calculated by people without an economic interest and therefore, to me, more credible.

Seems like a fair price to cut down on the number of brain-damaged children.

And if the cement makers feel under the gun to comply with stricter regulations, if they say they just need a little more time, I might point out that they've already had at least 35 years.

EPA can seal clean air future with tighter rules on cement 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 9:56pm]
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