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Rep. Nugent's thinking may show in vote over mercury emissions from cement kilns

Note to U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent:

Shortly after you and the rest of the members of the new Congress were sworn in last week, Rep. John R. Carter, R-Texas, introduced a motion to overturn new federal regulations on emissions from cement plants.

Do not vote for this. Please.

See, when my colleague Barbara Behrendt reported three weeks ago that the state fined Cemex $525,000 for emissions of mercury nearly 10 times above allowable levels, it caught a lot of us by surprise. Who knew mercury from cement kilns was such a big deal?

Turns out, there's a good reason for our ignorance. For more than 35 years after the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency barely enforced the emissions of mercury and several other harmful compounds from cement makers, an industry that has pumped as much as 23,000 pounds of mercury in the air per year across the country.

"Thanks to EPA's neglect, the cement industry's mercury emissions have not only gone uncontrolled but have largely escaped public scrutiny," stated a report — Cementing a toxic legacy? — published in 2008 by two nonprofit groups, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project.

Things started to change in 2006, when the EPA, responding to two successful federal lawsuits filed by Earthjustice, set tougher standards that applied to plants built after the rules went into effect. That's one reason why Cemex's kiln No. 2, which opened in late 2008, was slapped with a huge fine though it emitted less mercury than two older Cemex facilities in Hernando had released the year before.

In 2009, the year Cemex incurred its fine, the EPA said the new kiln put out a total of 63 pounds of mercury. In 2008, by comparison, a nearby kiln built in the 1980s by Florida Crushed Stone emitted 68 pounds of the toxic metal. The Cemex plant farther north, built by the former Florida Mining and Materials, released 134 pounds, 16th highest of about 100 cement factories in the United States. (It has been temporarily closed since late 2008 due to declining demand.)

Combine that with the emissions of the kiln to the south, and the total 2008 mercury emissions from Cemex's plants in Hernando came to 202 pounds.

"Two-hundred pounds is a lot of mercury," said James Pew, the Earthjustice lawyer who handled the EPA lawsuits.

Mercury is found not only in coal, the primary fuel for most kilns, but also in limestone cooked to create cement.

"And this is the deal with mercury," Pew said. "It's toxic in very small amounts. We're talking about grams."

For example, a fraction of a teaspoon is enough to contaminate the fish in a 20-acre lake, according the group's 2008 report. To see the extent of this pollution in Florida, look at the state Department of Health's advisory on eating fish contaminated with chemicals, primarily mercury.

Few people would be surprised to see that it recommends limiting the consumption of a wide variety of fish from coastal waters to one serving per week or per month. The advisory also places a large "DO NOT EAT" warning next to a few predatory species, such as king mackerel and sharks.

Less well known is that it advises people to restrict their consumption of bass and bluegill in bodies of fresh water, including the Withlacoochee River. These requirements are stricter for women of childbearing age and young children, and for good reason.

Even small amounts of mercury 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 cause these disabilities.

No, this is not all or even primarily the fault of cement kilns.

Nationally, power plants emit about 48 tons of mercury a year, or more than four times as much as peak emissions from cement kilns, Pew said. Closer to home, Progress Energy reported to the EPA that its plants in Crystal River released more than 400 pounds of mercury in 2009.

Also, Cemex general counsel Leslie White pointed out that all the Cemex plants in Hernando, even the one that received the large fine, have released far less mercury per year than their state environmental permits allow.

The size of the fine was due not to the total amount of mercury released, but to the number of days ­— 72 — that emissions exceeded allowable levels, said Ana Gibbs, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Cemex was not able to say Friday how the new rules, which go into effect in 2013, would affect its older plants. But nationally, EPA expects the new standard to cut mercury emissions from cement plants nationwide by 92 percent, which gives you a good idea how lax the old standards were.

So, just as it seems we are finally leaving the dark ages of regulation, Rep. Carter is circulating his resolution to extend them indefinitely. Not surprisingly, it's supported by industry leaders, including Cemex, White said, repeating a familiar argument: Regulation hamstrings industry, which costs us jobs.

Probably, this resolution is just a way for the Republicans to get this message across; with a Democrat-controlled Senate, it probably won't go anywhere. Still, it might give us an early political reading on Nugent. And though he said on Friday he hasn't committed on the issue, he was willing to talk the industry's talk.

"There are real-world consequences to overzealous EPA regulations and with hundreds of jobs in the 5th District at stake," he said in a statement released by his office.

As last summer's oil spill showed, there are also economic consequences to environmental degradation — as in, no one will want to move here or visit.

There's also the health of the fish to consider. Oh yeah, and the IQ of our children.

Rep. Nugent's thinking may show in vote over mercury emissions from cement kilns 01/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 9:40am]
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