Secondary menu

Poughkeepsie Journal: Cement plants are state's top mercury pollution source

Cement plants are state's top mercury pollution source
Emissions control regulations lag; contamination poses health risks

By Dan Shapley
Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, July 16, 2006

While the national and state governments have started a crackdown on toxic mercury pollution from power plants, the largest sources of mercury in the Hudson Valley remain completely unregulated.

The Hudson Valley's cement plants are owned by the world's largest cement manufacturers and they are New York's two largest sources of mercury air pollution, according to the latest federal data. The industry and the Environmental Protection Agency agree the technology that exists to reduce emissions wouldn't work well on cement kilns, but critics are skeptical.

"It's mind boggling that it doesn't happen. Mercury is a well-known neuro-toxin," said Susan Falzon, a board member of Friends of Hudson, a nonprofit fighting for strict controls on cement plant emissions.

"From the perspective of the public, with the power plant regulations, the public believes the EPA and the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) are protecting public health from the effects of mercury. They're not," Falzon said.

The LaFarge Building Materials Inc. cement plant in Ravena, Albany County, and the St. Lawrence Cement Co. plant in Catskill, Greene County, top the state's mercury emissions list. Those two plants accounted for nearly 40 percent of New York's mercury pollution.

The EPA has been successfully sued — twice — by environmental groups seeking to force the agency to set rules for curbing mercury emissions from the nation's 100 cement kilns, as the Clean Air Act requires.

The rule it proposed under a court order, this fall, would require no reduction in mercury emissions.

Power plants may use a system called activated carbon injection to curb mercury emissions. Such systems would be costly for cement plants and could increase other types of liquid and solid wastes, EPA spokesman John Millett said. Because plants use limestone mined at the plant, setting a standard based on the level of mercury in limestone would also be unfeasible, he said.

Processes differ

In a power plant, a bag house traps dust from its boiler, then the activated carbon injection system could be used to extract mercury. But a cement plant kiln's high temperatures would melt a bag house, and the carbon injection won't work in the presence of excessive dust, said Luc Robitaille, corporate director of environment for St. Lawrence Cement Co., which is part of Holcim, a Swiss company with worldwide operations.

"They ruled that there is no technology that exists in the cement industry to control mercury," Robitaille said.

Critics of the decision point to Zurich, Switzerland, where a cement plant is the world's only kiln using mercury controls. They also say emissions control is a chicken-and-egg process, and sometimes the requirement to reduce emissions is needed to spur technological innovation.

New York, which just set strict mercury control rules for power plants, will turn its attention to other major sources of mercury pollution after it implements the power plant program, Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren said.

This spring, the DEC permitted LaFarge, which is based in France, to burn waste tires along with coal at its Ravena plant, which it bought five years ago. That has a slight potential of increasing mercury emissions, but John Reagan, the plant's environmental manager, said an increase was "not likely."

Mercury occurs naturally on Earth, and can be released when soil erodes or volcanoes erupt. However, mercury concentrations in lake sediments have ebbed and flowed in lockstep with the trends of coal-fired industry.

Cement kilns emit mercury both from burning coal and processing limestone and the degree of mercury in limestone deposits being mined influences how much particular plants emit.

Fish is contaminated

Mercury contaminates fish, and people are exposed primarily by eating tainted fish — including fish caught in pristine mountain streams, or bought from grocery stores.

The body is slow to release mercury, so toxic levels can accumulate, particularly in children and unborn babies, leading to brain damage and other neurological problems. Consumers are often confused by conflicting advice on eating fish, which accumulate contaminants but also supply protein-rich meat and healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

The federal and state governments have taken a number of steps to curtail mercury pollution. Mercury has been phased out of use as an ingredient in many products, like batteries, for instance.

States also publish advisories against eating fish from certain waters — including Chodikee Lake in Ulster County and the entire Catskill and Adirondack Mountain regions. Women and children should avoid frequently eating many fish species because of the risks of mercury contamination.

However, advisories are posted only on those lakes and streams that have been tested, and some experts believe many untested waters are also contaminated.

Cement plant emissions represent a gap in the national push to reduce mercury pollution, restore polluted streams and make fish safe to eat.

The debate over national mercury regulations on power plants highlighted the risks that downwind communities face from specific smokestacks. For that reason, several states, including New York, rejected the federal strategy of allowing power companies to trade mercury pollution credits so long as the nation's overall pollution level decreased. Instead, New York has required all coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions by 90 percent by 2015.

When that rule takes effect, the two Hudson Valley cement plants will release three times as much as all New York's power plants combined, assuming emissions from the kilns stays constant.

Air pollution is key worry

Air pollution permits in the Hudson Valley are granted based on weather data from Albany that suggest pollution is primarily dispersed and carried east by prevailing winds.

New research suggests, however, the Catskill and Berkshire-Taconic mountains act like a funnel to channel winds — and presumably the pollutants they carry — into the valley. They also can trap low-lying air masses in the valley, while westerly winds flow over the top.

David Fitzjarrald and Jeff Freedman of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany, last month completed a three-year, $650,000 study paid for by the National Science Foundation. The research has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"What goes on in the Hudson Valley is a phenomenon called channeling and it's been more extensively studied in the Rhine Valley in Germany — another heavily industrialized region where they've studied how the valley affects the winds," Fitzjarrald said.

"As you start thinking about where the outflow goes from one of these tall stacks ... that would lead to serious uncertainties about who would be getting the dose."

The scientists plan a follow-up study that could begin in fall and last two years. If funded again by the National Science Foundation, they would try to create a computer model describing the air flow in the Hudson Valley. That could then be used for air pollution models to better predict the effect of specific industries.

Many risks unaddressed

While the overall level of mercury in the atmosphere will decrease significantly as a result of national and state efforts to curb power plant pollution, many smokestack-specific risks of mercury were left unaddressed.

The nation's largest source of mercury was the Lehigh Southwest Cement plant in California. Five more of the nation's top 100 mercury polluters are cement plants, including LaFarge's Ravena plant, which landed at No. 89.

Three of the nation's top mercury polluters were gold mines, including two of the top 10.

Another six of the nation's top polluters were steel plants. New York's No. 3 mercury polluter is a Finger Lakes-region steel plant.

The five other on the top 100 list were other types of metal or chemical plants.

In 2000, a federal judge ordered the EPA to draw up rules for limiting mercury, hydrochloric acid and hydrocarbons at the nation's cement plants. The decision was prompted by a lawsuit by EarthJustice and the Sierra Club, and the judge agreed the new rules were required by the Clean Air Act.

After the EPA took no action, the environmental groups joined with others in a coalition and again sued successfully, in 2004, to force action.

Last fall, the EPA proposed new rules, and determined new and existing plants would face limits on hydrochloric acid and hydrocarbons, but that cost and technological barriers prevented regulation of mercury. The environmental coalition has protested. A final decision is expected in December.

"It's just ridiculous," said Jim Pew, an attorney for EarthJustice. "These guys are big emitters and for whatever reason, EPA has decided to blow it off."

Dan Shapley can be reached at