Open house will give opponents of Cemex permit renewal a chance to air concerns

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BROOKSVILLE — State environmental regulators are preparing to temporarily renew the air operation permit for Cemex's Brooksville South cement plant, and residents who have been keeping an eye on the mining company are protesting.

Because of the opposition, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has scheduled a community open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lake House on Kenlake Avenue in Spring Hill.

At the open house, residents will be able to talk one-on-one with DEP personnel; they also may submit written comments and concerns to the agency. Based on the letters the agency has already received from the Neighbors Against Mining group and more than three dozen other organizations and individuals, people seem to have plenty to say.

"The concern we have is that it's the same old permit that we've had all along, and it's no good. It's a threat to public health,'' said DeeVon Quirolo, who heads up Neighbors Against Mining. "It's a short-term permit that extends the operation of the plant, extends the things that have been bad for a long time.''

Quirolo says the Cemex plant is obsolete and has been cited 19 times since 2002 for emissions that violate air quality standards, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for allowing the release of higher-than-acceptable levels of the toxin mercury.

Mercury is thought to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and young children. A neurotoxin, it can interfere with brain and nervous system function.

"Pollutants from coal burning are numerous and inimical to all life that lives under the umbrella of downstream emissions. These contaminates remain in the surrounding environment years after the polluting source has been removed,'' wrote Kent Bailey and Lisa Hinton, who head the Tampa Bay and Suncoast Sierra clubs, respectively.

"We are deeply concerned that continued operation of (the) seriously outdated plant will simply exacerbate the contamination to the Brooksville area that has occurred over years of operation of this plant,'' they wrote.

"I believe that the subject permit should be denied,'' wrote county resident Lisa Bambauer. "Adding more pollutants to the air is never a good idea. In Hernando County, it is an especially bad idea. The county earns a substantial portion of its revenue through visitors to our area. We are known for being the 'Nature Coast' of Florida.' "

The Brooksville South cement plant operates two Portland cement manufacturing lines that are fueled by coal and biomass, including wood and peanut shells. Cemex spokeswoman Sara Engdahl maintained that the plant is not obsolete.

"Both Cemex Brooksville South cement plant kilns utilize modern cement manufacturing technology designs,'' Engdahl said, noting that kiln No. 2 is a new production line commissioned in 2008.

The advanced line includes a number of new emission-control technologies that will meet new emission limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

"Cemex and its employees regard environmental compliance as an essential part of the day-to-day operations,'' Engdahl said.

The short-term permit will allow Cemex to continue operations until the new, more stringent EPA standards are put in place. Engdahl said the company already has its permits for the new emission control systems and is ready to install and operate them.

The renewed air operation permit will require continuous monitoring. But Quirolo noted that, when mercury levels were found to be out of compliance in 2013, the company allowed the plant to operate for 80 more hours before shutting it down.

Engdahl said Cemex considered that test result an anomaly and retested immediately, finding acceptable levels of mercury.

But with more than 7,000 Hernando County residents living within a few miles of the plant, Quirolo said that assurance isn't enough when residents are at risk.

"We are not satisfied that they are doing things in a responsible manner to protect public health,'' she said. "The point is we just don't trust Cemex.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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