The Cement Industry: An Underreported Source of Mercury Pollution

James Pew

Guest Column by James Pew, Attorney for Earthjustice

EarthJusticeThere are nearly 150 cement kilns operating in the U.S. In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - the federal agency required to protect us from harmful toxic air pollutants like mercury -estimated cement kilns pump nearly 12,000 pounds of mercury each year, based on voluntary estimates companies reported to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Because cement plants had no obligation to control or even measure their mercury pollution, however, there was no way of knowing exactly how much mercury these facilities actually emit.

Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project decided to find out what the actual mercury emissions are from cement kilns. In our July, 2008 report, "Cementing a Toxic Legacy?", we detailed evidence that mercury emissions are severely underestimated, and that actual mercury from cement kilns is closer to 23,000 pounds of mercury a year, almost double EPA's estimate. In some states, cement kilns are the worst mercury polluters. In Oregon, New York and California, the largest single mercury source is a cement kiln.

Our report told the stories of underreporting happening across the country. For instance, a cement kiln in Alpena, MI, reported emitting only 66 pounds of mercury; after the state required the facility to test its emission, test data showed the kiln actually emitted over 560 pounds of mercury. In Ravena, NY, just south of Albany, a Lafarge cement kiln reported mercury emissions in 2002 of only 40 pounds; actual emissions testing in 2004 revealed the kiln was emitting over 400 pounds of mercury.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can impair a child's ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn. Because it damages developing nervous systems, exposure to mercury is especially dangerous for unborn babies, infants, and young children. Mercury also puts adults at risk, however. It can affect fertility and blood pressure regulation, and can cause memory and vision loss, tremors, and numbness in the fingers and toes.

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. That translates to about 60,000 babies being born each year at risk from their mothers' exposure to mercury.

The primary route of exposure to mercury is through eating fish. Mercury pollution has contaminated rivers and lakes all across the country to the point where it is unsafe to eat fish caught in these waters. In 2006, mercury was known to have contaminated more than 14 million acres of lakes and over 882,000 river miles. 48 states issued fish consumption advisories, warning citizens to limit how often they eat certain types of fish caught in state waters because they are contaminated with mercury. It only takes 1/70th of one teaspoon of mercury to contaminate a 20-acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat.  

cement kilnCement manufacturing plants, or cement kilns, burn coal to heat limestone to produce cement. Both coal and limestone contain mercury, and both release mercury in the cement manufacturing process. Cement kilns' mercury emissions fall back to earth in a process known as deposition. Because it is an element, mercury does not decompose but persists indefinitely in the environment once it has been released. Further, mercury is bioaccumulative. In water bodies, mercury is taken up from the sediment by small organisms, which are eaten by increasingly larger organisms until it ends up in fish that it eaten by humans. At each step of the process, mercury levels increase in concentration, which makes large food fish that exist at the top of the food chain, especially dangerous to eat.

EPA's failure to control the mercury emissions from cement kilns is not merely irresponsible; it directly violates federal law. Promulgated in 1990, the Clean Air Act required EPA to set mercury emission standards for cement kilns over a decade ago. After Earthjustice brought a lawsuit against the EPA for its their failure to set mercury standards, a federal court then ordered EPA to issue those standards more than seven years ago. Thus, far, EPA has ignored the law and the court's order and, thanks to the EPA's neglect, the cement industry's mercury emissions have not only gone uncontrolled, but also escaped public scrutiny. 

Over the last ten years, Earthjustice has fought for stronger limits on mercury from cement kilns on behalf of the Sierra Club and several community coalitions including Downwinders at Risk, Montanans Against Toxic Burning, Friends of Hudson, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Huron Environmental Activist League and the Sierra Club. 

Finally, this fall, the EPA agreed to propose air pollution standards for cement kilns by March 2009. This marks the first commitment by the EPA to propose a limit on mercury in more than a decade of litigation and community activism.

While this is an important step towards progress, we do not know what this proposal next year will look like or how effective the standards will be. 

We recommend that the EPA adopt standards that include the following:

  • State and federal regulatory agencies should require specific testing for mercury emissions; 
  • Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems (CEMS) should be installed in every cement kiln to measure mercury emissions accurately and provide real-time data these emissions;
  • EPA must require cement kilns to install mercury pollution control devices. Some states can and should take action without waiting for EPA by immediately requiring kilns within their jurisdiction to apply these devices

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to identify categories of facilities that are major sources of toxic air pollutants and set emission standards for each category, such as cement kilns. There are effective and affordable technologies out there and it is time the EPA does its job and requires these facilities to clean up their pollution.

For more information, visit www.earthjustice.org/cement. Read Cementing a Toxic Legacy, the report by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on cement kiln mercury emissions.  Find out if there is a Cement Kiln near you. Understand how cement is produced and how mercury is released and gets into the fish we eat. Take action. Sign the petition or support Earthjustice's legal efforts to tell the EPA to clean up cement kilns immediately.

2 comments

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manoj kumar (anonymous)

HOW TO SAVE EMPLOYEES FROM POLLUTION IN CEMENT INDUSTRY

Written in December 2008

manoj kumar (anonymous)

i can save employee from pollution in cement indutries.

Written in December 2008

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  • Posted on Nov. 30, 2008. Listed in:

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