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News on toxic emissions needs to be shared

There was a lot of news in this paper on Nov. 3, the day after a historic midterm election: Republican gains in Congress, the political death spiral of our governor, the then-undecided race to replace him.

So it's likely you missed a small, gray legal advertisement on page 8F concerning mercury emissions at a Cemex plant near Brooksville.

Nobody at the county seems to have noticed it. Neither did workers in the state Department of Health. Even we missed the news, or at least we did until last week, when my colleague Barb Behrendt broke the story in the Hernando Times:

The state Department of Environmental Protection fined Cemex $525,000 for emitting mercury at levels nearly 10 times the allowable limit, and ordered it to fix the problem.

Before we talk about what the DEP didn't do, let's look at what it did — levy the fine and demand a remedy. Keep that in mind as our incoming governor runs down the regulators and talks about pushing DEP into a dark corner of a mega-department dominated by road builders.

Now, on to its failings.

A little more than a year ago, the DEP found one of Cemex's cement kilns was spewing out 408 "micrograms per dry standard cubic meter'' while the federal standard is 41 of these micrograms. According to DEP documents, the kiln exceeded these standards for 72 days.

What does this mean, in terms of pounds or even liters — some measure the average person can get a handle on? How far did the contamination spread? Were the concentrations high enough to pose an immediate danger to workers or nearby residents? Or, as seems more likely, did it just add to the already heavy load of this toxin in our environment, further polluting our fisheries and increasing the long-term threat to pregnant women and young children?

(A very real threat, by the way. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that mercury levels in 8 percent of women of childbearing age in the United States were high enough to put their babies at risk of birth defects and diminished intelligence.)

Nearly two months after the DEP levied the fine, we don't have answers to any of these questions.

Gauging the threat to public health is not the DEP's responsibility, said spokeswoman Ana Gibbs. It is the role of the Department of Health. But its toxicologists couldn't help me when I called on Thursday because the DEP had never shared its reports with its sister agency in Tallahassee.

It is not required to, Gibbs said. It didn't even have to order Cemex to publish the legal ad and only did so "out of an abundance of caution," she wrote in an e-mail.

Abundant? No, it's not even the bare minimum. That would be notifying the Department of Health, which could then determine whether the elevated emissions were worthy of a bulletin.

And when it comes to a toxin as dangerous as mercury and a local industry as big as mining — and with such a long history of minimizing concerns about air pollution — I want to know any time emissions exceed allowable levels. Tell local officials, relevant state agencies, the news departments of media outlets.

This impacts our economy, our environment, the health of our children. It makes the front page any day.

News on toxic emissions needs to be shared 12/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 25, 2010 1:34pm]
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