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Calif. cement plant has one of nation’s highest mercury emission levels

Sam Pearson/California WatchThe Lehigh Southwest Cement plant in Tehachapi emitted the most mercury of any cement plant in California in 2010.

TEHACHAPI – At the end of an empty road just north of Highway 58 and past the outfield wall of an abandoned high school looms the towering Lehigh Southwest Cement plant – a behemoth kiln that belches mercury and other toxics into the air, as it has for decades.

After a round of publicity and public outcry in 2006 over mercury contamination from the plant, Lehigh’s emission rates for the deadly chemical plummeted. 

But now, the mercury emissions have spiked back up to some of the highest in the nation.

The Lehigh Tehachapi plant produced 872 pounds of mercury in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory data – the most of any cement plant in California and the second-highest among all cement plants in the United States. In 2007, mercury emissions had dropped to 144 pounds, and then began climbing again.

Inside the plant, workers burn coal to cook limestone mined from the nearby hillside at more than 2,600 degrees. Both materials contain mercury, which then escapes into the atmosphere. Once in the air, scientists say, the mercury settles on the ground and contaminates the soil and water – and, eventually, fish that are eaten by humans.

California, rich in natural resources and massive in size, is one of the country’s largest producers of cement, with eight production facilities on the EPA's list of mercury emitters. As such, a debate in Congress over controlling emissions from cement plants could have a major impact on the industry here.

The Obama administration and EPA have promised to impose strict limits on some of the most harmful pollutants emitted from cement plants, like mercury, hydrogen clouds, toxic organic pollution, arsenic and hexavalent chromium – the pollutant made famous in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”

Jim Pew, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice, said the move by the EPA is long overdue. 

“These plants were supposed to be in compliance over a decade ago,” Pew said. “They have so successfully played the system that they have avoided these standards for years.”

Under the new rules, which are scheduled to begin in September 2013, plants will be banned from emitting more than 55 pounds of mercury per million tons of cement produced. The cement industry said complying with the regulations could cost as much as $3.4 billion and force the closure of some plants, but federal regulators put the cost at less than $1 billion.

Andy O’Hare, vice president for regulatory affairs at the Portland Cement Association, which represents cement plants that use the “Portland” method of cooking limestone in kilns, said the regulations could cripple small towns across the country that rely on cement plants to provide local, well-paying jobs. 

For Lehigh’s Tehachapi plant, which employs about 100 people, controlling mercury emissions “will be one of the primary challenges we have,” said Tom Chizmadia, a spokesman for the cement company based in Texas. 

The limestone mined from the volcanic earth near Tehachapi is naturally high in mercury, the company notes, and transportation costs prohibit importing limestone from great distances. 

“We’re looking at a number of technologies and operating systems to see how we can best meet” the new mercury emissions standards, Chizmadia said. “Our focus is to meet that, so we can have the facility operating.”

Despite this federal effort, environmental activists remain skeptical that anything substantial will get done after decades of pollution and what they said is inattentive oversight by local air pollution boards. 

In Southern California, environmental activist Jane Williams has waged a fight for years against the eight cement kilns operating in Kern and San Bernardino counties. She remembers driving toward Las Vegas along the old Route 66 at night with her infant son when she passed TXI Riverside Cement’s plant in Oro Grande. 

The air became so thick, she said, that she could not see well enough to drive. So she stopped the car, got out and started videotaping what she saw. She sent the tape to the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District, but never received a response.

“This kiln is just out of control,” she remembers thinking. “(The air board) did nothing. Nothing.”

Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District spokeswoman Violette Roberts said the agency investigates all complaints from residents, as long as they concern stationary pollution sources and are within the district’s boundaries. “Sometimes when we show up on the site, the same exact thing may not be occurring,” Roberts said.

In most cases, state and federal EPA authorities have done most of the policing of California’s cement plants. 

In December, the CalPortland Co. agreed to pay a fine of $1.42 million for Clean Air Act violations at its plant in Mojave, about 11 miles from Lehigh’s Tehachapi plant. In a settlement with the EPA, CalPortland said it would install equipment to reduce its nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution, which are linked to asthma and cardiovascular diseases.

Throughout the country and California, cement plants remain a persistent environmental problem. A recent review of EPA documents by the Center for Public Integrity found 10 cement plants on a “watch list” of plants that, according to a 2007 report from the EPA’s inspector general, “tracks facilities with serious or chronic noncompliance that have not received formal enforcement action.”

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR found that across the country, regulators have struggled to protect hundreds of communities from harmful pollutants, and sometimes chronic, serious violators of the Clean Air Act faced no enforcement for months or years. California Watch, which partnered with the center, looked closer at some of the worst violators here.

In many cases, cement plants in other states have been given permission to pollute at high levels. One plant in Chanute, Kansas, has been allowed to burn hazardous waste like industrial solvents; aluminum-paint waste; and toxic leftovers from chemical, pharmaceutical and oil production, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported.

City residents worried

Residents like Neoma Recalde, who lives about a mile from the Tehachapi plant, sometimes see dust on neighborhood cars and strange clouds coming from the plant. Recalde said she is not always certain where it comes from.

Tehachapi Mayor Ed Grimes remembers growing up in the town in the 1950s, when cars left outdoors overnight would be covered in cement dust the next morning. “The pollution was just outrageous,” Grimes said, adding that he believes the plant is cleaner now than it was back then.

Grimes, who also leads the Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District, started scrutinizing the plant when his daughter-in-law was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Grimes said he knows other women – four or five of them in the city – with the same condition and points to mercury pollution as the likely culprit. 

While the Lehigh plant is the largest source in the area, there is no evidence to suggest that exposure to heavy metals like mercury causes multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Grimes admits that despite his nagging suspicions, “I don’t have any scientific evidence of that, and maybe I never will.”

Built to provide cement for the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1908, Lehigh Southwest’s Tehachapi plant has emitted startlingly high levels of mercury ever since. According to EPA records, the plant emitted the most mercury of any cement plant in California in 2010, and until 2005, it was the highest in the nation.

But over the years, the plant had faced little pressure to cut back its mercury emissions. The plant’s owner, Lehigh Cement Co., was fined $10,625 by local regulators from 2005 to 2010 for other violations, even as it emitted 3,257 pounds of mercury during that time.

When the Los Angeles Times identified Lehigh’s plant as the nation’s highest emitter of mercury pollution in 2006, based on 2004 statistics, “a lot of people were up in arms,” said Glenn Baumann, a Tehachapi resident who has been involved in monitoring the plant.

Baumann said he understands the cement companies’ need to stay in business, make money and produce a product. But, he said, “just don’t make us sick or kill us.”

Since 2004, mercury emissions had been declining – tests for 2005 and 2006 showed 697 and 586 pounds, respectively. By 2007, the plant cut its emissions to 144 pounds. Air district officials said at the time that the decline showed that Lehigh was making progress in reducing its mercury problem.

But the numbers spiked again – in 2008, emissions reached 944 pounds, and in 2010, the plant’s mercury emissions were 872 pounds. 

Explaining plant’s emissions

Various explanations have been offered for why the plant’s mercury emissions have varied so widely – offering a window into the complicated nature of measuring mercury emissions as the Obama administration pursues its new regulations.

Chizmadia said the plant in 2008 switched to a newer method of calculating mercury emissions – from a more traditional “stack test,” which measures a snapshot in time, to a more accurate “mass balance” test. Now, the mercury content in their limestone is measured before production. The mercury in the plant’s “clinker” byproduct is tested after production, and the difference is assumed to be the emission levels. 

Activist Williams said the emissions declined because plant officials measured the mercury content in various areas of the limestone mine and then began mining limestone from areas with lower mercury content.

Chizmadia and David Jones, air pollution control officer for the Eastern Kern Air Pollution Control District, said the plant stopped using silica from the mine that contained high levels of mercury, and this had contributed to lower levels. The silica is now imported from another source with less mercury, Chizmadia said.

Jones disputed the accuracy of past EPA data showing Lehigh emitting more than 2,500 pounds of mercury annually. Jones said those results were just “estimates.” He also said that the plant had not been producing as much cement during the economic downturn and that also accounted for decreased emissions. 

Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, has an impact that is difficult to quantify, but is believed to be most dangerous for pregnant women and small children. It can contaminate bodies of water and cause fish to be unsafe for human consumption; it also causes other symptoms like reduced IQs, behavioral problems and heart conditions.

Cement officials argue that Lehigh’s Tehachapi plant, along with Ash Grove Cement Co.’s plant in Durkee, Ore., are unique among the nation’s cement plants as “mercury outliers,” because of the naturally occurring variations in the limestone at their facilities. The volcanic rock mined from nearby sources has a far higher mercury content than limestone supplied to other cement plants.

Ash Grove’s plant has emitted nearly 18,000 pounds of mercury in the past decade, while Lehigh’s plant emitted nearly 14,000 pounds.

Politics and industry

O’Hare, the Portland Cement Association official, said a cement industry study looked at each plant individually and calculated whether it would be cost-effective for the plant to purchase new equipment to reduce emissions. The study concluded that 18 cement plants could be forced to shut down because of the new regulations, with a total of 3,000 to 4,000 jobs lost. 

“Once you close down an industrial facility like this,” O’Hare warned, “you’re not going to reopen them.”

O’Hare declined to release the specific plants deemed most vulnerable to closure, but Chizmadia said the Tehachapi plant was not on the list.

Earthjustice lawyer Pew said the cement makers were simply playing politics by using the threat of a shutdown as leverage to escape pollution controls. He discounted arguments by cement manufacturers that further controls would force plants to close.

“The argument is so disingenuous,” he said. “All of the control technologies have been available for decades that will let them reduce their emissions by 90 percent.”

But if there really were no way to comply, Williams said the goal of the Clean Air Act would be to force the most toxic industrial plants to stop operating.

“Chemicals that are a danger to human health should be reduced in the environment,” Williams said, arguing that if the Lehigh plant in Tehachapi shut down, its production simply would shift to other cement plants that emitted less mercury.

Many environmentalists believe that the actual levels of mercury emissions could be significantly higher than what EPA data suggests. Earthjustice has argued that continuous emissions monitoring should be required for all plants to ensure accuracy.

A bill that passed the House of Representatives in October would remove the EPA’s effort to tighten regulation of cement plants. The measure passed the House 262-161, with 25 Democrats voting to support it and two Republicans opposing it. Obama has vowed to veto any attempts to weaken the new standards.

Environmental groups said the effort to kill the regulations is misguided.

There is “no credible reason to delay that implementation, except that the Portland Cement Association is upset that this will cost their plants extra money,” said Diane Bailey, spokeswoman for the National Resources Defense Council.

“The public health and air quality benefits from these proposed regulations are tremendous,” she said. “Really, we’re talking about literally thousands of lives that would be saved by implementing these regulations.”

O’Hare said that argument might make sense in the present economic climate, in which there is little demand for cement because construction has slowed. But he said that when the economy eventually rebounds, all existing cement plants would need to be operating to meet demand.

If they could not, O’Hare argued, the production would be replaced by imported cement from places like China – where comparable pollution standards do not exist.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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