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The Lehigh plant is among the largest mercury pollution sources in Maryland, the Environmental Integrity Project says. (Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett / September 19, 2006)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to require cement plants - which are among the nation's leading air polluters - to reduce emissions of mercury and other contaminants by more than 80 percent by 2013.

The regulations are the first seeking to govern what is discharged when limestone, clay and other materials are cooked into the main ingredient in concrete. The proposal would require plants such as the Lehigh Cement Co. kiln in Carroll County to install equipment or make other changes to limit release of toxins.

"We can save more than a thousand lives each year," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said Tuesday in announcing the rules. "Mercury and other chemicals flowing into these communities are health hazards for children, pregnant mothers, local residents and workers - people who deserve protection."

Lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club over the past decade prompted the agency to agree to regulate cement kiln emissions for the first time.

"It is going to cut some of the worst, most toxic pollution that threatens our health from some of the worst polluters that operate in this country," said Jim Pew, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The EPA will accept public comment on the proposal before issuing final regulations.

There are more than 150 plants in the United States that make Portland cement, the most common type. The Lehigh plant in Union Bridge is the nation's fifth largest. It is the second-largest source of mercury pollution in Maryland, said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

The plant reported spewing 376 pounds of mercury into the air in 2007, 10 times what it reported the year before - and far below one group's estimate that it potentially is putting more than 1,500 pounds of the toxin into the air each year.

Tim Matz, director of environmental affairs for Lehigh Hanson, which owns the Union Bridge facility, said the company will review the EPA's proposal. He said officials worked with the EPA for two years as the agency developed the new rules.

In Union Bridge, he said, the company could install equipment to clean the air before it leaves the stacks. The company also is considering changes in the way it makes cement, which could include capturing the mercury before it is emitted and encasing it in the final product, rendering the mercury harmless.

Other plants, however, may not be able to adhere to the new standards and could be forced to shut down, Matz said. "It is a legitimate concern that some plants will not be able to meet [the standards] no matter what they do," he said from his Irving, Texas, office.

The EPA estimates that the benefits outweigh the costs, but those costs are high. The estimates for changing the plants to meet the goals range from $222 million to $684 million.

Mercury in the air eventually falls into water, where it changes into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish.

Pregnant women are urged to limit consumption of many fish caught in the Chesapeake Bay because of mercury contamination. Rockfish, for example, should be eatern by a pregnant woman just once a month.

Estimates vary as to how much mercury is emitted by cement kilns nationwide, though the EPA says they are the fourth-largest source of mercury pollution in the country, behind coal-fired power plants, among others.

Aside from reducing mercury emissions by 81 percent, the EPA estimates that the new rules would cut hydrochloric acid by 94 percent, sulfur dioxide by 90 percent and particulate matter by 96 percent.

"These are kind of the forgotten polluters on the American scene right now, and this is finally bringing a spotlight to what they produce out of their smokestacks," said Jim Schermbeck, a board member with Downwinders At Risk, an air pollution advocacy group outside Fort Worth, Texas.

"These guys need to be brought into the 21st century," he said.

Source: Baltimore Sun, April 22, 2009