BROOKSVILLE — New health concerns about the operation of the Cemex Brooksville South Cement Plant were raised this week by County Commissioner Diane Rowden and members of Neighbors Against Mining.
Rowden asked for the issue to be placed on Tuesday's commission meeting agenda after she learned that the information given to county commissioners in private meetings last week with Cemex officials did not tell the full story of a 2013 mercury emission incident.
Cemex has had serious problems with mercury emissions before. In 2011, the company was fined $525,000 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a series of releases of mercury which violated air quality standards at the plant.
Rowden took issue with the contradiction between what she was told during her meeting with Cemex officials last week and what DEP external affairs manager told the Times in an email. To remind her fellow commissioners what they were told about a mercury test from August 14, 2013, she read a press release on the incident.
Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl characterized the incident as "an administrative error.''
"At no time was Cemex out of compliance with environmental emissions or operational limits,'' she wrote. "The health and safety of the local community or our employees was at no time threatened. All emission rates remained well below federal guidelines and Florida permit limits.''
Engdahl also noted that "the negligible amount in fines, $1,500, is reflective of how minor of an infraction the consent decree addresses.''
But in her email, Gibbs of the DEP said that , "the test report dated September 23, 2013, showed the referenced facility violated the mercury emissions limit" set in the company's permit. The allowable limit for mercury emission is 41 micrograms per dry standard cubic meter but on August 14, 2013, the reading was 52.71.
Putting the issue in perspective, Gibbs wrote, "the facility conducted a retest within approximately 40 days and demonstrated a return to compliance. The facility also demonstrated that the violation would reasonably have been expected to have occurred for a period of only approximately 80 hours.''
She also noted that Cemex neglected to report the failed test in annual and semi-annual reports and stated that the DEP is working with the company to resolve ongoing issues.
In her release, Engdahl states that the fine was just because of the failure to list the test results in those reports but she also makes clear that both the DEP and the Environmental Protection Agency knew of the "anomaly test results."
"Mercury is very, very serious,'' Rowden told her fellow commissioners. She asked whether they would agree to get the staff to work with the DEP and Cemex to resolve the emission issue by doing whatever is necessary even if it meant changing out equipment. She got no support from the other commissioners.
Brooksville resident DeeVon Quirolo, who led the efforts to defeat a comprehensive plan amendment to expand the Cemex mine earlier this year, said the Cemex version of what happened was misleading and untrue.
She said the latest information along with details of blast reporting that her group presented during public hearings "further diminishes our trust in Cemex, a foreign corporation that can well afford to upgrade its Hernando County facilities to protect public health and the environment from harmful emissions.''
Brooksville attorney Darryl Johnston, who represented Cemex in the recent hearing, likened the latest concerns to hysteria from 25 years ago when people said that no one would come to Hernando County because of the mines. As for the mercury test results, he said, "it was a bad test. Everyone knows that.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.