Government cracks down on emissions from cement plants
The federal government is proposing new rules to reduce airborne mercury pollution from cement kilns for the first time. When finally adopted after the public comment period, the rules will apply to the Cemex plant in Davenport and 150 other plants across the nation. The plant in Davenport is currently closed because of the decreased demand for cement due to the economy, but could reopen in the future.
In 2005 the Cemex plant emitted 170 pounds of mercury, making it one of the biggest emitters of mercury nationwide.
The new standards would cut mercury pollution by 81–93% nationwide according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Led by Lisa Jackson, the new EPA Administrator, EPA is proposing first-time standards for cement kilns of mercury, hydrochloric acid, and toxic organic pollutants such as benzene. In addition, the agency is strengthening the outdated standards for particulate matter to better control kilns’ emissions of lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals.
The new standards are being proposed as part of a court settlement reached between the US Environmental Protection Agency, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice representing Sierra Club, and others. Local and national environmental and public health advocates cheered the news, which follows a decade of delay and represents a hard-fought victory for those who have long pushed for these mercury limits.
“This is great news and is a promising sign that the new leadership at EPA and in the White House is serious about protecting public health and the environment,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. “By stopping pollution at its source, we can keep mercury from poisoning the fish we eat. Bit by bit, we can reclaim our nation’s waters and protect our children’s health and our environment from dangerous mercury pollution.”
The new rules would also require cement kilns to monitor their mercury emissions for the first time. In the past, the industry has been notoriously lax about reporting these emissions: a study last summer from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that cement kilns emit mercury pollution at more than twice the level estimated as recently as 2006 by the EPA, which only started to collect data on the problem in 2007.
Mercury is dangerous in even very small doses; one-seventieth of one teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake and make the lake’s fish unsafe to eat. But a study by the University of Florida found that when mercury pollution is reduced, ecosystems can indeed bounce back, documented by reduced mercury levels in fish and certain bird species within just a few years.
A dangerous neurotoxin, mercury interferes with the brain and nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of American women of childbearing age have mercury in their bodies at levels high enough to put their babies at risk of birth defects, loss of IQ, learning disabilities, and developmental problems.
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