BROOKSVILLE — Officials from the mining giant Cemex this week met privately with county commissioners to discuss the potentially dangerous chemical emissions from its Brooksville cement kilns.
During the meetings, Cemex officials assured Hernando that their problem with mercury emissions, which had been recorded at 10 times allowable levels, has been solved.
And after the community was alerted to the dangers through a St. Petersburg Times story, the officials also assured the county that they will better communicate any other serious issue that arises from the facilities.
"We met with the county to reiterate that we want to keep lines of communications open,'' was the statement released from Leslie White, executive vice president and general counsel for Cemex on Friday.
In late December, county officials and local officials with the Hernando Health Department said they knew nothing about the problems with the Cemex kilns. They expressed concern that information should have been shared publicly so that any immediate health risk could be evaluated.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect the brain and nervous system. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been working with Cemex for months to cut down the mercury emissions from the kiln operations. The company reached an agreement with the DEP in which it agreed to a method of bringing the emissions within bounds and paid a fine of $525,000.
The DEP sent notice to the county after questions were raised about the lack of communication about mercury emissions.
"It's important to understand that according to the Florida Department of Health, mercury can be harmful to humans if they are exposed to significant amounts over a long enough period of time,'' wrote Pamala Vazquez, program administrator for the Southwest district.
She pointed out, however, that there does not seem to be an immediate threat to residents. "These intermittent types of mercury emissions would not pose an immediate health risk,'' she wrote.
Still, county commissioners said they were glad Cemex stepped up to talk to them about what had happened.
"Their message to us is that they wanted to be good community partners. They said they had been working hand in hand with the DEP to take care of the concerns out there,'' said County Commissioner John Druzbick.
"They're not going to let this happen again and they're going to improve their communications process,'' Druzbick said. But he said Cemex shouldn't take on the whole responsibility of what happened because DEP never shared the issue with local health officials who work for the state.
"We have a health department and a Department of Environmental Protection and they should communicate that information and that did not happen,'' he said. "It was definitely a breakdown in communication.''
Druzbick said he also felt assured that Cemex planned to keep a handle on the mercury issue into the future.
Commissioner Dave Russell also said it had been a good meeting and that he was glad to hear a complete explanation of the problem, which relates to mercury emitted when the raw materials are mixed in the kiln.
He also said the Cemex representatives explained that the standards for mercury had changed in the course of the company building the kiln and levels that had been acceptable before were not acceptable now. He said he appreciated the chance to talk to the Cemex representatives one-on-one.
"It left me with a comfortable feeling that everything had been reconciled,'' Russell said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.