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Feds to order mercury control at cement plants

01/17/2009

By Anton Caputo
San Antonio Express-News

After fighting the idea for nearly a decade in court, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to regulate toxic mercury emissions from existing cement plants.

The agreement announced Friday gives the EPA until March to come up with regulations to limit emissions from the more than 100 cement kilns around the country. There are 10 in Texas including two in San Antonio and two in New Braunfels, according to the EPA.

"This is certainly a step in the right direction," said attorney Jim Pew, who represented the environmental group Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We want to see some really protective mercury standards."

EPA's agreement stems from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The agency has agreed to write regulations to control mercury, hydrochloric acid and total hydrocarbons from cement plants by March 31 and adopt final rules a year later.

Andy O'Hare of the Portland Cement Association said the industry had been expecting the move, but worries about the cost of upgrading plants. "It comes at sort of a rough time," O'Hare said. "The industry is really in a dumper."

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to developing fetuses and small children. When released into the air it can eventually end up in water, where it accumulates in fish and other marine life, making them potentially harmful if eaten.

Cement kilns around the country account for nearly 12,000 pounds of mercury, according to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory 2006 data, the most recent available. Although some environmental groups, including Earthjustice, contend that recent analysis shows the emissions are underreported and could be twice that amount.

Cement operations in Texas emit 493 pounds. Nearly half comes from Cemex's plant in New Braunfels. That plant recently completed a $250 million expansion that doubled its capacity.

"Our Balcones cement plant is in compliance with all health and environmental requirements regarding mercury today," Cemex spokeswoman Jennifer Borgen said in an e-mail. "Cemex will comply with the EPA's decision and will do whatever it takes to follow the new rules at all of our plants."

Most of the mercury in the manufacturing process, O'Hare said, comes from the limestone used to make cement, which makes controlling the pollution difficult.

"This is just a little more complicated than some environmental issues due to the nature of its relationship with the raw material," he said.

Mercury regulations for cement plants were ordered in 1990 as part of an amendment to the Clean Air Act. The order gave the EPA until 1997 to adopt regulations. The agency missed the deadline and there has been a series of legal challenges since.

In 2006 the EPA set emission standards for new plants but refused to do so for existing plants, arguing, according to statement issued Friday, that "the older plants already meet minimum standards and that imposing new ones would force them to make costly, disruptive changes in raw materials or fuels."

Federal officials would not comment on what kind of regulations they might propose in light of Friday's agreement.

"We will be able to respond to that question when we issue a proposal," the EPA said in its statement.

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