A Big Step Toward Cleaner Cement

The cement industry has, for decades, been a huge polluter. Relative to the number of cement plants nationwide, the industry is responsible for a disproportionate amount of pollution from mercury and greenhouse gases, not to mention a host of other dangerous toxic chemicals, such as soot (particulate matter) and smog and hydrochloric acid.  In California, for example, there are currently only 10 cement kilns, but they are responsible for over 90% of all of the airborne mercury releases from the entire California industrial sector.  Monitoring downwind from these facilities has shown that they can contaminate the air, soil, and waterbodies with mercury and the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

Why has cement been such a big polluter? Because for many decades this powerful industry has essentially gotten a free pass from government regulators. Cement kilns haven’t been subject to the same emissions control requirements that many other industrial sectors are required to meet. This has caused trouble for local communities, and for people who eat fish contaminated with mercury from local lakes and streams.

Fortunately, all that is about to change!

Today the EPA released a 450+ page final rule that will require the cement industry to clean up their act by 2013. According to the EPA’s estimates, the rule is projected to lead to the following reductions:

  • Mercury – 16,600 pounds or 92 percent
  • Total hydrocarbons – 10,600 tons or 83 percent
  • Particulate Matter – 11,500 tons or 92 percent
  • Acid gases – (measured as hydrochloric acid): 5,800 tons or 97 percent
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)– 110,000 tons or 78 percent
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) – 6,600 tons or 5 percent 

Mercury is particularly harmful to babies and young children: prenatal exposure to even low doses of mercury is associated with childhood deficits in IQ, attention span and physical coordination. Even tiny amounts of mercury can pollute water bodies and contaminate fish we later eat. The rule would reduce mercury pollution, as well as pollution from hydrochloric acid gas, which irritates the lungs and can trigger asthma attacks; soot (particulate matter), which can lead to premature death and respiratory ailments; and other toxic pollutants such as benzene, lead and arsenic.

We are still analyzing the details of the lengthy rule to see if EPA has done everything it should to follow the law and protect the public.  But, these are big projected reductions.  Kudos to EPA for taking steps to protect public health and the environment.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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