Lehigh Hanson Inc. wants to head off U.S. pollution rules it says industry can’t meet. At a plant in Union Bridge, Maryland, the cement maker has pledged to achieve required mercury standards a year ahead of a 2013 deadline.
Lehigh, the U.S. unit of HeidelbergCement AG, is among companies lobbying for legislation scheduled to be debated today in the Republican-led House that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to scrap and rewrite regulations on cement plants, one of the biggest sources of toxic mercury emissions.
Meeting the EPA’s deadline would cost $3.4 billion and may lead to shutting down 18 of about 100 U.S. cement plants, according to the Portland Cement Association, a trade group. The EPA says the cost would be no more than $950 million, and environmental organizations say the industry’s claims are belied by actions such as Lehigh’s plans in Maryland.
“Cement plants can reduce their emissions when they want to,” James Pew, a staff attorney at EarthJustice in Washington, who filed lawsuits pushing for the regulation, said in an interview. “The argument that they can’t is purely for political consumption.”
In addition to the cement rules to be considered today, the House has on its agenda this week a measure to put off for 15 months EPA regulations for industrial boilers, used at paper plants, hospitals and schools. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce today urged lawmakers in a letter to back both measures, while President Barack Obama’s administration issued veto threats on Oct. 3.
Behind Coal Plants
Cement plants melt limestone and other minerals to go into concrete, used in roads, bridges and buildings, at temperatures that can exceed 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius), generating mercury pollution that ranks second behind that from coal-fired power plants, according to the EPA. Mercury, typically ingested by eating contaminated fish, poses the biggest risk to fetuses and children, in whom it can cause long-term damage to thinking, memory and the nervous system, according to the agency.
The EPA rules also mandate cuts in acid gases, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which may require different control technology.
Lehigh pledged in 2009 to cut mercury emissions from its plant in Union Bridge to 86 pounds a year from 400 pounds a year. The agreement with state regulators calls for the facility, located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Baltimore, to meet the EPA’s standards a year in advance of the federal deadline.
The company is still figuring out how it will deliver on that pledge, and the solution can’t simply be replicated from plant to plant, according to Tom Chizmadia, senior vice president for government affairs for the division of HeidelbergCement of Heidelberg, Germany. The company employs 12,000 people in North America.
“Mercury ties back to the composition of the limestone,” which is usually drawn from a quarry nearby, Chizmadia said in an interview. “And not all the plants have mercury as their biggest issue. There is no single technology” to meet all the pollution standards, he said.
As it lobbies to get the EPA rules rolled back, the company is working to meet the pollution standards at each of its 11 U.S. plants, he said.
For its cement plant in Cupertino, California, the company installed a carbon-injection system this year, which it said in a letter to local officials would reduce mercury emissions by 30 percent.
Lehigh isn’t alone in acting to meet standards it wants Congress to invalidate.
Ash Grove Cement Co.’s plant in Durkee, Oregon, was the nation’s largest emitter of mercury from cement plants, with 879 pounds sent up its smokestack last year, according to EPA data.
The company, which supports the House legislation, spent $20 million on activated-carbon injection equipment that would remove 90 percent of the mercury from its emissions, according to Jacqueline Clark, a spokeswoman.
“We did it proactively, voluntarily ahead of the EPA rule-making,” Clark said in an e-mail.
Those Lehigh and Ash Grove plants are among the top six mercury polluters among cement plants nationwide, according to EPA data.
The Portland Cement Association, based in Skokie, Illinois, is lobbying to block the EPA rules on behalf of companies such as Cemex SAB, the largest producer of cement in the U.S., and Holcim Ltd.
Time to Comply
“We’re not averse to being regulated, but the rules need to be achievable and we need time to comply,” Jason Morin, the U.S.-based vice president for environmental and government affairs for Holcim of Jona, Switzerland, said in an interview. “And it’s coming at a time that is difficult for us as an industry.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, invited Spencer Weitman, president of National Cement Co. of Alabama, to be his guest when Obama addressed Congress on Sept. 8. The company blamed the EPA rules for its decision to suspend a $350 million expansion project.
Contractors, road builders and unions, such as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, also support the House legislation, saying the EPA rules will raise their concrete costs as they struggle to recover from the housing collapse and recession.
“Cement is the lifeblood of our industry,” Sean Thurman, senior manager for policy at the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. in Arlington, Virginia, said in an interview. The rules “would reduce domestic production and create gaps in supply.”
The cement legislation is H.R. 2681.