In “Calif. cement plant has one of nation’s highest mercury emissions levels,” reporter Sam Pearson describes how the mercury contamination from a Tehachapi plant has reached high levels. To help readers understand why this matters, we break down the issue of emissions at cement plants with a glossary of terms that includes pollutants and their suspected effects, an FAQ with insights on how you can get involved, and a map of cement plants throughout California.
But first, do you live near a cement emissions plant? Click here to share your insights with California Watch and inform our reporting.
Glossary of terms
Arsenic: A solid poisonous element, arsenic is said to be four times as poisonous as mercury. Arsenic is suspected of contributing to various cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, peripheral vascular and endocrine diseases.
Coal: The combustible rock is composed primarily of carbon with varying quantities of other elements that include but are not limited to hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen and oxygen. Coal has been linked to lung cancer and the emission of arsenic, mercury and selenium, among other toxins. To learn more about coal, watch “Dirty Business: ‘Clean Coal’ and the Battle for Our Energy Future,”produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
EPA MACT: The new rules, which are scheduled to begin in 2013, are known as the EPA Maximum Available Control Technology. More information can be found here.
Hexavalent chromium: Also known as chromium VI, this type of chromium compound has been recognized as a carcinogen when inhaled. Lungs are the most vulnerable, followed by kidneys and the intestines. This pollutant was made famous in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”
House Bill HR 2681: The Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act of 2011 can be read here.
Limestone: This rock consists primarily of calcium carbonate and is generally formed by the accumulation of organic remains like shells or coral.
Mercury: Elemental, or metallic, mercury affects people when inhaled as a vapor. Effects may include tremors, emotional changes, insomnia, headaches and more. Additional information can be found here.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people in the United States are most often exposed to the organic compound methylmercury when they eat seafood. “For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development,” its website states.“Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother's consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.”
Nitrogen oxide: This term applies to any of several types of oxides that are produced in combustion and considered atmospheric pollutants, which have been linked to damaged lung tissue (possibly resulting in death), as well as exacerbated emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease.
“Portland” method: The Portland Cement Association describes its eponymous manufacturing method here.
Silica: Silicasometimes known as silicon dioxide (SiO2), is the primary raw material used in Portland cement, as well as earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. Health effects linked to the inhalation of silica dust include bronchitis and cancer.
Sulfur dioxide: A pungent toxic gas, sulfur dioxide is a major air pollutant. The EPA lists respiratory conditions like exacerbated asthma symptoms and bronchoconstriction among the health effects linked to sulfur dioxide. Read the EPA listing here.
Toxic organic pollution: This term applies to any molecule that contains carbon.
Frequently asked questions
· Why do high mercury emission levels matter? Scientists say that when mercury escapes into the air, it can then settle on the ground and contaminate soil and water – and, eventually, fish that are eaten by humans.
· If I’m opposed to House Bill HR 2681, what can I do? Contact your representatives (listed below). The bill does not appear to have enough support to pass the Senate, and President Barack Obama said he would veto it.
· Are there manufacturing alternatives that don’t create such high emission levels? There are technologies that reduce emissions at plants. But certain regions, like where the Tehachapi and Durkee, Ore., plants produce cement from areas with a volcanic history that causes the rocks to naturally contain a higher level of mercury.
Scan this Google map to see whether there are mercury-emitting cement plants in your area. Plant contact info and the corresponding air quality control district contact info are listed.
View California cement plants with mercury emissions in a larger map
There are many players involved in the mercury emissions issue – and many ways to get involved. You can find and contact your state legislative representative by clicking here. Plants with noteworthy mercury emission levels and their local air quality district are listed in the Google map above.
Government agencies and officials
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Write: 4770 Buford Highway NE
Atlanta, GA 30341
Note: Go here for individual ToxFAQs sheets about specific substances, including those in the article. The agency doesn’t answer questions about individual medical cases.
Environmental Protection Agency
Write: U.S. EPA Region 9
75 Hawthorne St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
Report possible environmental violation: www.epa.gov/compliance/complaints/index.html
En español: www.epa.gov/espanol
For a list of California’s House representatives , click here.
Tehachapi Mayor Ed Grimes
Write: 115 S. Robinson St.
Tehachapi, CA 93561
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
Write: 312 N. Spring St., Suite 1748
Los Angeles, CA 90012
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Write: 11111 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 915
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Write: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500
California Air Pollution Control Officers Association
Write: 1107 9th St., Suite 210
Sacramento, CA 95814
Write: 50 California St., Suite 500
San Francisco, CA 94111