Midlothian is not likely to make a list of places you want to move, even one of those made-up Forbes lists. If the hulking smokestacks and the fact that there is a Cement Valley there don't scare you off, then the reports of abnormally high rates of cancer, stillbirths, respiratory problems, and birth defects will. Residents have been complaining about those things for years.
In response, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry set out to see whether the reported health problems might have some connection to the emissions bellowing from the smokestacks.
That was in 2005, and progress has been slow. An congressional subcommittee determined in 2010 that the agency had blundered badly by soliciting little or no input from cement industry critics and paying "undue heed to the corporate interests or local politicians that have vested interests in concluding that there are no actual or potential public health hazards."
That's not to say ATSDR has been doing nothing for seven years. Today, they released a report examining the health impacts of pollutants (sulfur dioxide, ozone, fine particulate matter, and lead) emitted by the three cement kilns and one steel plant in Midlothian.
The agency concluded that those chemicals did have an adverse impact on health, but mostly for sensitive populations and mostly in the past. For example, sulfur dioxide levels between 1997 and 2008 were problematic to people with asthma, heart and lung problems, and the obese. The same was true of particulate matter between 1996 and 1998 in a localized area of Cement Valley. And there were elevated amounts of lead in the air between 1993 and 1998, but they only reduced the IQ of children who played nearby by one or two points, and lead levels would only be high enough for that to happen in about 20 percent of kids. All of those pollutants now fall below federal standards and are unlikely to pose a health risk, the report concludes.
Jim Schermbeck, head of Downwinders at Risk, thinks the report understates the health impact of the cement plants "by many magnitudes." That's largely because ATSDR relies on a methodology that is fundamentally, even ridiculously, flawed.
"It's basically somebody at a desk in Atlanta looking back at historical data from state monitors," he said.
Those monitors weren't always very well positioned, and there are huge gaps in the data, Schermbeck said. Today's report admits as much: its conclusions apply to the area around the TXI and Gerdau Ameristeel plants only, since little or no data was recorded near Holcim and Ash Grove. Also, the standards used to by ATSDR to determine what levels of ozone and other pollutants are safe are too high and not in line with current scientific consensus.
The fact that such a deeply flawed report still identified significant health risks just hints at how bad those risks are. And they're only going to get worse if the cement kilns win permits they're seeking to allow them to burn industrial waste.