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Strange and Passioniate Emissions From Yesterday's EPA Cement Kiln Hearing

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Among the first 60 commenters at yesterday's public hearing on proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations intended to reduce emissions from cement kilns, there was obvious consensus on a few points: They liked the EPA's new rules. They felt they needed them, because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), depending on whom you ask, falls somewhere between "industry-loving" and ineffective. And, by the way, the cement industry's claims are all bogus.

Wednesday's hearings, held at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, were an intermediate step in the process of amending the rules for what cement plants are allowed to emit in terms of air pollutants -- an issue the EPA has been dealing with since 1999, when the agency was sued and ordered by a federal appeals court to set new standards for mercury, hydrochloric acid and total hydrocarbon emissions. In 2006, the EPA published changes to its 1999 rule; after more information surfaced, the agency issued updated amendments last month.

From now until September 4 -- the deadline was extended at the request of the Portland Cement Association, the pro-cement coalition that includes the three plant operators in Midlothian (Ash Grove, Holcim and TXI) -- the EPA is collecting public comments on the amended emissions rules. The process includes three oral hearings (in Los Angeles, Dallas and Arlington, Virginia) and the collection of written comments. (To comment, visit here and enter docket number EPA-HQ-OAR-2002-0051.)

The proposed amendments would set specific emissions limits on emissions of mercury, hydrochloric acid and total hydrocarbons -- and lower the emissions limits for particulate matter (dust) -- from cement kilns. If passed, the new rules would represent the first time the EPA has set limits on mercury emissions from cement kilns, a step industry representatives argue would result in plant closures, job loss and a severe drain on the cement industry. But with pollution levels that have exceeded federal air quality standards since the 1990s, the DFW region can hardly argue that change isn't necessary, and industry representatives' offers of alternatives to the amendments they opposed were vague at best and nonexistent at worst.

Early in the speaking schedule, Andy O'Hare, VP of regulatory affairs for the Portland Cement Association, threatened that the proposed rules "would undermine the stability of the domestic cement industry, endangering thousands of jobs and the supply of a basic construction material for uncertain environmental benefits." O'Hare lobbied for "achievable" standards but failed to specify what that meant.

Jan Prusinski, the executive director of the Cement Council of Texas, went even further, claiming the new regulations would result in plant closures that would in turn send cement production overseas to China, whose plants would spew out enough mercury to pollute California and the rest of the world. Add that to the emissions of the commercial ships and tugboats required to import the cement to Texas, and we're looking at, in Prusinski's words, "more emissions across the nation." Prusinski also said the cement industry had done its part for environmental improvement and that cement plants "are one of the largest contributors to local property tax rolls."

The citizens -- the ones at the hearing, anyway -- didn't take the bait. Several Midlothian residents countered that their properties are so contaminated that they can't sell them; others made the point that even if the cement industry does suffer, maybe it's deserved.

"It is time for the construction business to pay the cost of updating and coming into the 21st century," said Terry Jensen, a grandmother with a career in construction behind her. "If part of that is that some of our jobs go to China, then that's our fault. I hope you will not listen to my industry when they try to tell you to relax your rules."

Of close to 70 commenters, most favored the EPA rules, and many indicated that they hoped the EPA could be more effective than the TCEQ has been so far. There were professors, mothers, lawyers, accountants, representatives from several environmental agencies and local groups, a custom cabinet-maker and a slew of teachers. Deirdre Tinker, 38, came dressed as a cement kiln -- half of her costume contaminated with no emissions controls, the other half clean and regulated. She spewed "pollution" over the audience "without your permission, but the state says it's OK! Ha ha!" Her teenage son then spoke about his asthma.

Midlothian resident Debra Markwardt screened a slide show of farm animals deformed and disabled due to alleged emissions from the cement kilns. State Sen. Wendy Davis and Rep. Carol Kent spoke of the need for better environmental regulation in Texas; the city of Dallas sent Eric Griffin, the current director of the Office of Environmental Quality.

"For the record, the city of Dallas does support the EPA's proposed amendments ... to reduce emissions of mercury, total hydrocarbons, hydrochloric acid and PM [particulate matter] from new and existing cement kilns," Griffin said. "The city of Dallas has a long-standing commitment to improving air quality," he added, and went on to cite the city's efforts to work with the EPA through the Sustainable Skylines Initiative and other programs.

After Griffin, SMU engineering professor Al Armendariz presented technical comments and aroused the EPA's interest by suggesting that it monitor mercury emissions from coal plants, too, just to make sure an under-the-table mercury credits trade (kind of like the carbon credits market) didn't lead to greater emissions. Sue Pope, one of the founders of the local group Downwinders at Risk, pulled heartstrings with a tearful account of the medical problems that have plagued her family; after she spoke, loud applause filled the conference room at the DFW Grand Hyatt.

But perhaps the most dynamic speaker was Morine Kovich, a feisty, white-haired grandmother who spoke in a high, reedy voice and gestured excitedly to make her points.

"I'm old," Kovich began, eliciting gentle laughter from the audience. "But this topic is old also, because I've walked the line for 30 years dealing with pollution and companies that do not want to shape up, and we're paying the price -- everybody's paying the price," Kovich said. She trained her eyes on Jeff Clark, the EPA's director of policy analysis and communications for air quality, who listened intently.

"You all are like a ray of hope for me!" Kovich exclaimed, her voice rising with excitement. "It's the first time there's been real interest -- that's the word, interest! -- in trying to solve the pollution of our air!"

Kovich spoke eloquently of breathing problems among children who live downwind and charged the EPA with keeping its word about truly protecting the environment. She expanded scope to include environmental problems across the country until she realized the red light, situated in front of commenters to keep them from exceeding their allotted five minutes, was blinking.

"Am I past my time?" Kovich asked sheepishly. Clark chuckled.

"It's easy for me to beat up on the lawyers," he said, "but you're harder."

"I am giddy about this whole proposition!" Kovich added as a parting shot. "It's gonna solve Mr. Obama's problem with health care and everything else!"

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