If a recent proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency is finalized in December, cement plants will have until September 2015 to comply with clean air standards previously scheduled to take effect in 2013. Lafarge North America and other members of the industry maintain the delay will help them implement necessary operational changes, while environmental activists cry foul over what they say is a needless delay of anti-pollution regulations already long overdue.
The EPA established the air quality standards in 2010 to impose significant restrictions and monitoring practices on toxic emissions from cement plants as required by a 1970 amendment to the Clean Air Act. In an announcement last month, the EPA cited additional "compliance flexibilities" and implementation time as the reason for the delay, calling it a response to a court remand and petitions for reconsideration; a recent Supreme Court case had found the EPA standards acceptable but asked for an explanation of rules established after the standards were issued.
The new proposal also would increase allowable output of particulate matter from 0.04 to 0.07 pounds per ton of clinker, though this would be based on an allegedly more strict three-hour stack test once every three years instead of an average measurement over 30 days. Having filed a lawsuit when the EPA failed to pass the restrictions by the Clean Air Act's original deadline for them in 1997, San Francisco-based environmental advocacy group Earthjustice denounced the delay as a threat to public health. Earthjustice Staff Attorney Jim Pew, whose organization has represented Alpena's Huron Environmental Activist League in the past, said attempts by industry lobbyists to get the rules weakened or delayed were voted down by Congress, but EPA administrators opted to delay the standards anyway.
"Because (the EPA) hadn't set these standards for so long, when it finally cut them, they were going to reduce emissions from cement plants a lot. They were going to cut mercury and other metals by 90 percent or more, because there simply hadn't been any federal standards that required any cuts. Cement plants have been allowed to emit as much of that stuff as they liked for as long as they've been operating, so these were very significant standards, and they were going to save a lot of lives every year," Pew said. "The benefits vastly outweighed the costs. I think it was something like 19 to one, so $19 in health benefits for every dollar of cost to industry, something like that."
According to the EPA's own calculations, the 2010 air standards would prevent between 960 and 2,500 premature deaths nationwide every year by reducing particulate matter, or soot, not counting emission reductions of suspected carcinogens like arsenic and lead. Pew said the Clean Air Act already had a provision for companies that needed more time to comply, calling the EPA's recent proposal a "giveaway to industry."
"We hope the EPA will think twice. There is a process for people to comment and oppose this, and it seems like one of the things that people can and should say, especially people who live in Alpena, is, 'Look, if EPA's rule was going to save 960 to 2,500 lives a year, then delaying compliance is going to kill (that many) people a year, and we don't want that," he said. "There's going to be a public hearing. EPA hasn't said when or where it will be, and there will also be a chance to write in to EPA with comments. But personally, I think it's reasonable to start calling EPA administrators right away. You don't have to wait for the official opportunity."
Lafarge Alpena declined to comment but referred to a statement by Lafarge North America that supports the EPA's new emission standard modifications and delay as necessary for compliance.
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.