Quarry quandary


The limestone that comes from quarries near Durkee, Ore., has more mercury in it than average. As Jeremy Miller reported for HCN last January, when that limestone gets cooked in giant kilns to make cement, the mercury lifts into the air along with other dangerous pollutants like soot, hydrogen chloride, and hydrocarbons.  From there, it eventually settles into lakes and rivers and builds up in the tissues of aquatic creatures. When people eat fish downstream from the cement plant, the mercury can cause serious neurological damage, especially in kids. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's own figuring, the Durkee cement plant is one of the biggest sources of airborne mercury in the U.S.

So when on August 9 the EPA announced new rules to limit harmful emissions – including 92 percent reductions in mercury – from cement plants across the country, officials of Ash Grove, the company that runs the Durkee facility, were upset. They've already invested $20 million over the last couple of years to cut the plant's unusually high mercury emissions. More technological improvements may not get them to the new standards, they say, so instead, they’re asking for a special set of laxer rules specific to their plant.

But this is not an era for industry to find relief from increasing regulations. The New York Times calls Obama’s EPA, "perhaps the most aggressive advocate of the new regulatory philosophy in Washington." The administration is developing a reputation thanks to its recent efforts to write new stricter regulations to reduce power plant emissions and toxic chemical discharges and even address climate change. Through separate regulations, the agency plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cement kilns next year.

Opponents of the new cement kiln pollutant regulation say it will cut hundreds of jobs as plants shut down, sending cement manufacturing oversees where unregulated emissions still contribute to the global pool of airborne mercury and other pollutants. But environmental groups like EarthJustice, which has sued the EPA time and time again to make cement plants comply with Clean Air Act standards, celebrate the environmental and human health benefits the regulations will bring. The EPA estimates the rules will yield as much as $18 billion in health and environmental savings annually while costing less than $1 billion to meet.

Either way, the trend toward using sweeping rules to address environmental problems is not likely to go away during this administration, and after years of failing to regulate cement plants, the EPA is showing little sympathy for protests to the regulation. Despite complaints that the new rules may doom the Durkee facility – the largest employer in its county with a staff of 116 and a $9 million payroll – the agency declined Ash Grove's request to relax limits there. Instead, it might give the company a few extra years to comply with the new standards, which could be "a lifeline" to let the company find a way to keep toxins from its high-mercury limestone out of the air.












Map: Western U.S. cement plants from EarthJustice.org

Emilene Ostlind is an HCN intern