Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cement Plants Spew Huge Amounts of Mercury Unregulated

by Brian Nearing
Albany Times Union
February 28, 2008

For the third year in a row, the towering smokestack at the Lafarge cement plant sent more toxic mercury into the air than any other place in the state.

The plant on Route 9W north of Ravena released 400 pounds of mercury, according to 2006 figures released last week in the federal Toxic Release Inventory.

That was nearly one-third of all the mercury pollution in the state -- equivalent to four of the state's largest coal-fired power plants, according to a Times Union analysis of TRI and state records. The inventory contains pollution levels reported by businesses to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Emissions of mercury, which ultimately drift back to earth, are known to cause developmental problems in developing fetuses and children. Prevailing westerly winds in the region would carry stack emissions from Lafarge across the Hudson toward Columbia County.

The body is slow to release mercury, so toxic levels can accumulate and lead to brain damage and other neurological problems.

A mere one-seventieth of a teaspoon of mercury will contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point at which fish are unsafe to eat, according to a 1991 study published in Science News. Nationally, about 6 percent of women of childbearing age had mercury levels in their blood above what is considered safe, according to a study by the EPA.

Environmentalists are urging the state to expand rules that already limit mercury from power plants to include cement plants -- something the Bush administration refused to do nationally in 2006, prompting a lawsuit from several environmental groups.

State officials are negotiating renewals of air pollution permits for both Lafarge and another mercury polluter, the St. Lawrence cement plant in Catskill, said Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Mercury is an issue involved in the renewals," she said. Lafarge's permit expired in April 2006, while St. Lawrence's expired in 2002; both plants are operating under the expired permits.

Wren said state officials are considering rules to limit mercury from cement plants. New York has required coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions 90 percent by 2015.

Much of the mercury escaping from the two local cement plants comes from the burning for fuel of mercury-tainted coal waste -- called fly ash -- obtained from power plants. Mercury also comes from the processing of limestone used in making cement.

Pollution controls for power plants have made fly ash much more toxic, according to a 2007 report from the EPA, with mercury levels rising by an average of 850 percent. It is legal for cement plants to burn fly ash.

Read more here.

Copyright 2008 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation


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