Green Cement Plants Could Mean Cleaner Air and Lower Costs
The belching, cement-producing smokestacks that dot Dallas County's southern horizon have long befuddled area officials working to comply with federal clean air standards. Facing deadlines, fines and the potential loss of federal funds, a growing group of local governments is mounting a green revolution in the cement market.
Two years after the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee recommended city councils in the region provide incentives for the use of "green cement" in construction projects, Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and Plano, as well as Dallas County Schools—which provides busing, maintenance and other services to county districts—have passed resolutions that require most of the cement used in municipal projects to come from the least-polluting plants. A slew of other cities and school districts are considering similar rules.
In mid-October, when Texas Industries Inc., the largest cement producer in the state, indefinitely shut down its four oldest and dirtiest kilns, watchdog groups like Public Citizen and Downwinders at Risk called it a coup for the regulatory movement despite the company's insistence that the ailing economy and ensuing construction downturn prompted the move. Regardless, green cement supporters say leveraging the market is a worthwhile step.
"Using our purchasing power is just the next step in trying to work with local industry and business to help reduce emissions in the nine-county area," Brian Boerner, environmental management director for the city of Fort Worth, said at an October 21 pre-city council meeting in reporting the results of the new policy. "Failure to comply with the Clean Air Act not only threatens us with the potential loss of federal highway dollars, there's also significant health issues."
Fort Worth's green cement resolution, passed in May, requires that cement used for bid projects come from kilns with emission rates of no more than 1.7 pounds of lung-scarring, ozone-fueling nitrogen oxides per ton of material used to make the mixture. Generally, the only kilns that can meet that standard are "dry" kilns, as opposed to the older, less efficient "wet" kilns, which use a larger amount of water and a higher level of energy during the manufacturing process.
Jim Schermbeck, a longtime clean-air advocate with Downwinders at Risk, has spent years fighting the pollution belched by Midlothian's kilns—according to 2006 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data, the plants produce around half of all industrial smog in the region. After organizing boycotts of "toxic cement" in the '90s and engaging in such bitter confrontations with the companies that one, Texas Industries Inc., threatened to move its headquarters out of Dallas, by 2005 Schermbeck and others had developed the idea of leveraging economic incentives and tying them to the effort to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions.
"We took a negative—the phrase 'toxic cement'—and turned it over on its side to get 'green cement,' a way to positively sell this message," Schermbeck says. "An Inconvenient Truth [former Vice President Al Gore's global-warming documentary] had just come out; everything green was suddenly faddish. It was good timing."
The 2007 controversy over TXU Corp.'s attempts to build additional coal plants brought the problem of industrial pollution to the forefront, and Schermbeck delivered a presentation on the merits of green cement to then-Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. Miller ran with it with the help of Laura Fiffick, then the city's director of the Office of Environmental Quality. In May 2007, Dallas passed the region's, and reportedly the country's, first green cement resolution.
While there were initially concerns that it would be less cost-effective to use green cement, the localities who are doing it have only experienced a slight rise in cost that seems to be evening out as the practice becomes more widespread. To prepare for cost problems, Dallas mandated that green cement be used in base bids but allowed for alternate bids using cement from other sources. Fiffick says she doesn't know of any alternate bids that have been selected because of higher costs. "What we found was the numbers were virtually the same," she says. "The majority of the projects have gone to base bids [using green cement]."
In his recent presentation, Fort Worth's Boerner showed an analysis of 16 city projects using green cement that shows a mere 1.05 percent increase in cost. He predicted that figure would be lower in the coming months. "As the program continues," he said, "we notice green cement is becoming less of a boutique commodity and more of a standard stock line." He also said that concerns about a lack of supply had also proven unfounded. "It hasn't affected our ability to bid jobs or complete jobs," he concluded. "We're seeing similar results across the region."
To Fiffick and Downwinders' Schermbeck, there is already ample evidence of the leverage such policies provide. After Dallas and Fort Worth passed the resolutions, Ash Grove, which owns one of the five remaining wet kilns in Midlothian, offered to lower its emissions by 1 ton per day—though not enough to conform to the base bids—if they could still be allowed to compete. The company can bid only on alternate bids.
"When they made that offer, you knew something was up," Schermbeck says. "It was the first time any plant in Midlothian had reacted voluntarily to a political development on the ground."
A spokesman for Ash Grove couldn't be reached for comment by deadline.
In August, TXI announced it would indefinitely idle its four wet kilns in Ellis County. The shutdown process took two months and included layoffs, though TXI maintains they aren't permanently closed and could reopen in the future. In a press release, the company cited the broader economy and shrinking construction market, but Schermbeck points out that in the initial coverage of the move, the Waxahachie Daily Light reported that company leaders mentioned the green cement trend as at least a minor factor in the closures.
"There is a lot of interest in the area and in our industry in 'green' cement production standards," Maurice Osborne, a TXI manager of corporate communications, told the Daily Light. "Our kiln No. 5 dry process meets the 'green' standards that many cities who buy concrete from us have adopted." That kiln is the company's one remaining plant operating in Midlothian and the most efficient (built in 2001, it produces 6.5 times as much cement as the '70s-era wet kilns while emitting 40 percent less pollution).
"You have an economic constriction that's going on in the industry as a whole; they're looking for ways to cut costs," says Schermbeck, "and then you add the fact that they're losing customers to these green cement resolutions."
Randy Jones, a spokesman for TXI, says the rules weren't a factor. "It didn't play a role in our idling our kilns," he says. "When the markets are down, you want to run the most efficient kiln you have, and that's the No. 5 kiln."
Whatever the reason for the closure, environmentalists like Schermbeck celebrated on October 13, when the last of the TXI wet kiln operations ground to a halt. "This is the first time since 1987 they wouldn't be burning hazardous waste at TXI," he says.
Now, he and his organization are setting their sights on Ash Grove's one remaining wet kiln in operation—"The number of wet kilns across the country are decreasing and Ash Grove wants to cling onto this industrial dinosaur in a non-attainment zone?"—as well as working with the Environmental Protection Agency and TXI to negotiate the retirement of the company's wet kilns, which it could restart at any time.
And, as the Legislature opens next year, he'll be working with local governments to lobby in Austin for state regulations on old kiln technology.
"The key is to freeze companies who use dirty cement out of highway money," Schermbeck says. "If highway dollars were denied the wet kilns, they'd be replaced promptly."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.