The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set new rules, more than a decade in the making, to curtail air pollution from cement kilns, a huge source of toxic mercury that ends up in fish.
The rule, according to Clean Air Watch will eliminate more than 8 tons of mercury air pollution, and will also significantly reduce soot (a.k.a. particulates); hydrocarbons; sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other acid gases; and toxic gases. Soot, hydrocarbons and sulfur dioxide contribute to smog, and sulfur dioxide also causes acid rain. Each of these pollutants will be reduced 78-97% under the new rule (with the exception of nitrogen oxides, which is slated for just a 5% reduction).
The cement industry successfully fought off regulation for years, arguing that installing smokestack scrubbers similar to those used on the nation's many coal-fired power plants would increase costs excessively. Even while high-profile fights were being waged over air pollution from coal-fired power plants, pollution from coal-fired cement plants went unregulated. Because cement plants typically used older technology, and because the limestone used to make cement -- like the coal burned to fire the plants -- contains mercury, cement kilns are among the largest sources of mercury air pollution in the country. (Gold mines are also biggies: See Top 10 Mercury Polluters in the U.S.)
Mercury rains down, contaminating rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. Working out of the mud, the toxic form of methylmercury accumulates in the food chain, making many wild-caught fish unsafe to eat. (EPA: Local Fish Advisories)
The cement industry is heavily consolidated and controlled by international companies that are, in many cases, based outside the United States. While the U.S. economy demands cement, the pollution is dumped domestically while the profits are exported.
Here's a list of the 23 cement kilns that emitted more than 100 pounds of mercury in 2008, the last year for which data is available. (View all 100 in the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory.)
Note, however, this caveat from Earthjustice, which has led the nonprofit coalition fighting mercury pollution from cement plants: "The TRI depends on voluntary emissions estimates that may significantly understate kilns' actual pollution levels. Individual cement kilns in New York, Michigan and Oregon routinely understated their emissions until being required by state officials to conduct emissions tests at which point it was evident that their actual emissions were approximately ten times higher than previously reported. The Lafarge kiln in Ravena, New York previously reported mercury emissions of only 40 pounds. It now acknowledges emitting more than 400 pounds per year." Indeed, even compared to our last accounting in 2006, the numbers from some plants have changed significantly. Whether because of the demand for cement during the recession, changes in reporting or otherwise, the cement industry reported the lowest emissions of mercury in 2008 than any other year in the nine-year record. The 2008 total mercury emission were down 31% from the high, in 2002 of over 15,000 pounds.
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