Mighty Changes From Little Struggles Flow: Another Downwinders Success Story

by jim on December 30, 2011

This is not a story that will ever make national headlines. It hardly even got a respectably-sized article in the town where it’s taking place. But for beat-down citizen-soldiers of the air wars looking for proof that their own local battles can affect national policy, it’s a tale worth telling. Yesterday, the Department of Justice and EPA announced a settlement agreement with a multinational cement company called ESSROC. Among other things, the agreement calls for the pilot testing of advanced Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) pollution control technology at ESSROC’s two obsolete wet kilns in Logansport, Indiana. Wet kilns like the three at Ash Grove’s Midlothian plant. It will be the first demonstration of this remarkable technology on wet kilns anywhere in the world. Last year, DOJ reached a similar agreement with LaFarge Cement that’s requiring a pilot test of SCR on a dry kiln in Illinois. Those results are due by July, 2013. The results from the wet kilns in Indiana will be due by May, 2015. This will be about the time the DFW area is trying to assemble a new clean air plan to reach the just-announced ozone standard of 75 parts per billion. We’ll have pilot tests of SCR on both types of kilns in Midlothian, and Downwinders will be using those tests to advocate finally requiring SCR on all Midlothian cement kilns. In use in European cement kilns for a decade, SCR – basically a huge industrial size version of the catalytic converter every US car has – has been proven to reduce emissions of smog-forming Nitrogen Oxides by 90% or more, while also reducing Particulate Matter pollution, metals, and dioxins. It’s considered the gold standard of kiln control technology. When it does end up in Midlothian, SCR will be coming back to the kilns and people that are responsible for its import into the US. That’s because Downwinders was the first citizens group in the country to began advocating the use of SCR in cement kilns – way back in the year 2000, as part of a DFW anti-smog plan. Impossible the state and cement companies said. Too expensive. Not technically feasible. We didn’t win, but we kept up with information about the technology. A couple of years later, our modest assistance to a group of citizens fighting a proposed Holcim cement plant right on the banks of the Hudson in New York gave us access to their hired engineering expertise, which had done its own technical review of SCR in Europe. We took that information and made it a basis for a demand in our own settlement with EPA and TCEQ over the failed 2000 DFW air plan to do an independent review of SCR for application to the Midlothian kilns. That 2006 study is still the only study of its kind in the nation. Much to TCEQ’s lasting chagrin, that report confirmed that SCR was technically and economically feasible for application on the Midlothian cement plants. TCEQ has done its best to run away from that report every since, even having its staff perjure themsleves in state legislature testimony about its conclusions, but it got published and distributed nationwide. Other states and engineers read it, and are still using it. During this same time Downwinders, with the help of funding acquired through yet another settlement, hired its first ever technical expert, a young engineer from SMU named Al Armendariz. One of his jobs was to review the SCR report we’d generated and collect more data on the track record of the technology in Europe. By the end of his stint, he was somewhat of an expert on cement control technology, especially SCR. And then he went to go to work as the Regional Administrator of EPA. As it happens, EPA was in the middle of a national enforcement initiative involving the entire US cement industry. Many of the violations that were found revolved around illegal and excessive emissions of Nitrogen Oxides. Downwinders pressed for SCR pilot tests as part of these agreements. In January, 2010 EPA and DOJ announced the LaFarge settlement requiring a first-ever US pilot test of SCR. In discussions with EPA Midwestern staff afterwards, it was clear that the TCEQ report and Downwinders’s efforts were well-known and provided the technical evidence to help drive the settlement talks toward including an SCR provision. Yesterday’ announcement of a new round of SCR pilot-testing indicates that influence is still being felt…..Did we need luck? Absolutely. Did we make our own luck? Absolutely. We were opportunistic as hell. We advanced the cause at every turn. We fit square pegs into round holes. Unrelated developments got pulled into relationships that built on previous steps because we saw a path that nobody else did. We slowly built the technical and political scaffolding we needed. And these last two years have seen the fruits of that strategy. What began as a demand for a specific control measure for a local DFW clean air plan has now brought the entire US cement industry to the brink of using a control technology that could bring massive reductions in pollution nationwide. This is a story about the un-sexy, un-Erin Brockovich way of grinding out incremental social change with small groups of very persistent people. And it’s the way progress is made most of the time. Want to change the world? Start in your own backyard.

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