WASHINGTON - Environmental groups are upset over a new federal effort to cut mercury emissions at dozens of cement plants around the country, saying it defies a court order to toughen controls on the highly toxic air pollutant.
The Environmental Protection Agency defended the standard as an important step in its battle to curb the flow of noxious fumes from industrial smokestacks.
The 200-plus cement kilns in the United States are the nation's second-largest mercury emitters after coal-fired power plants, which are installing pollution-control equipment under state programs required by the EPA.
James Pew, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Washington, said the mercury standard that the EPA announced on Monday applies only to new or modernized cement plants. He said the regulation doesn't require the owners of existing kilns to retrofit them with scrubbers or other equipment to reduce mercury emissions.
"The EPA decided to allow every cement kiln to continue to emit as much mercury as it likes," Pew said. "This is part of a long string of agency refusals to obey the law."
About 80 percent of the cement used in the United States, Pew said, is produced at plants owned by foreign companies, among them giant firms in France, Switzerland and Mexico.
Keith Barnett, an EPA environmental engineer who helped craft the mercury rule, said it satisfies the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, in which Congress listed 189 of the most toxic pollutants and directed the EPA to set limits on them.
"We determined that what cement kilns are currently doing meets the minimum requirements under law," Barnett said. "This is a judgment call that we have to make when we evaluate each (pollutant) source category."
The new EPA standard also targets cement kiln emissions of hydrocarbons, a class of pollutants that's less toxic than mercury.
Mercury, a heavy metal whose consumption has been linked to memory loss, birth defects and other neurological disorders, enters waterways from rain. Its toxicity is then concentrated by a type of water bacteria. Fish transmit mercury to people, with tuna and other species higher in the food chain carrying higher levels.
At least 40 states have warned residents about eating mercury-laden fish from their lakes, rivers and creeks.
The owners of cement kilns say they release 12,000 pounds of mercury a year into the air. Environmentalists say the total is likely much higher because most mercury emissions reported to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory are estimates, not measurements.
The EPA said its new rule will reduce mercury emissions from cement plants by 1 ton - 2,000 pounds - a year, or one-sixth of the current reported level.
Some cement companies have voluntarily started measuring their plants' mercury releases. The estimated annual emission of 58 pounds from a cement factory in Alpena, Mich., rose tenfold after its operators began measuring the emissions, according to Pew.
"EPA doesn't require them to measure," Pew said. "If they were taking this issue seriously, they could have done that years ago."
Andrew O'Hare, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Portland Cement Association in Washington, said winds can carry airborne mercury thousands of miles. Much of the mercury contamination in the United States, especially in the West, comes from factories in China and other rapidly industrializing parts of Asia, he said.
O'Hare's group is the main lobby for cement companies that operate more than 200 kilns at 115 plants around the country. He said the EPA rule imposes stringent mercury emission limits on new cement factories.
"You've got a whole bunch of new plants on the books," O'Hare said. "A significant percentage of (cement) in the United States is going to be produced at these new plants, which are going to be subject to these new standards. If I were the environmentalists, I would be out there claiming victory."
Ten cement plants are under construction, O'Hare said, and 25 to 30 will be built or modernized over the next decade. Those kilns will produce about 40 million tons of cement, he said, or 30 percent of the material used in the United States.
Conservation groups and the EPA have tangled for years in federal court over limits on mercury, chromium, arsenic, formaldehyde, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other highly toxic metals, chemicals and other materials.
In response to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the U.S. District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordered the EPA in 2000 and again in 2004 to set new mercury emissions for cement kilns. The 1990 Clean Air Act directs the agency to set different standards for the various industries that produce the targeted pollutants.
Cement kilns are required to report mercury emissions to EPA's Toxic Releases Inventory, but the reports can be estimates instead of measurements. Environmentalists say some plants that voluntarily began measuring their mercury releases found amounts 10 times greater than their previous estimates. A cement plant in Tehachapi, Calif., reported having emitted more than 2,500 pounds of mercury in 2004, the most in the country. Here are the reported mercury releases of some other plants in 2004:
-Blue Circle/Lafarge, Harleyville, S.C., 260 lbs.
-Ash Grove Cement, Midlothian, Texas, 150 lbs.
-Rinker Portland Cement Corp., Miami, 106 lbs.
-Giant Cement, Harleyville, S.C., 100 lbs.
-Holcim Inc., Midlothian, Texas, 60 lbs.
-Holcim Inc., Holly Hill, S.C., 33 lbs.
-TXI Operations, Midlothian, Texas, 30 lbs.
-Lafarge Corp., Sugar Creek, Mo., 26 lbs.
-Medusa Cement, Clinchfield, Ga., 18 lbs.
© 2006 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources