Six-Year Green Cement Campaign Wins, Ash Grove to Decommission Last Wet Kilns in Texas™

by Downwinders on February 27, 2012

(Dallas)—-Kansas City-based Ash Grove Cement Company has submitted a permit amendment to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that seeks permission to convert its Midlothian plant from three wet process kilns operation to a single dry process kiln by 2014. In a cover letter to the TCEQ dated January 13th, Trinity Consultants’ Kasi Dubbs writes that, “With this permit amendment application, Ash Grove is proposing to modify Permit Number 1 to decommission two kilns at the plant, and reconstruct that third kiln from a wet process kiln to a preheater, precalciner kiln system.” According to the permit amendment application, total plant manufacturing capacity will decrease by 230, 000 tons a year, from a maximum of 1,182,000 tons of cement to 949,000 tons. Ash Grove claims that this decrease in capacity combined with cleaner dry process kiln technology will reduce pollution from its Midlothian operations by almost 105,000 tons of air pollution a year, including 98,000 tons of CO2, 6,000 tons of Sulfur Dioxide, and 560 tons of smog-forming Nitrogen Oxides. Ash Grove’s decision means that in two years, Texas will no longer host any obsolete wet cement kilns that were the industry standard throughout the 20th Century but whose energy inefficiency and pollution made them disadvantageous in the 21st. As recently as 2008, Midlothian had almost a fifth of the nation’s total wet kilns. Wet kilns depend on massive quantities of water to mix the ingredients of cement and then uses equally massive amounts of energy to evaporate the water out of the cement through exposure to extreme heat. They began to fall out of favor after the second Arab oil embargo of the 1980’s when energy prices climbed significantly. Their numbers have been steadily declining for decades. In 2010, TXI Cement announced they were closing their four wet kilns in Midlothian, almost a decade after operating side-by-side with its huge new dry “Kiln #5”. With Ash Grove’s conversion, there will be only a handful of wet kilns left in the entire U.S. Citizens who had spent years campaigning to close the Midlothian wet kilns were celebrating. “This is truly an end to an era. These kilns have been operating since 1965. They were the dirtiest cement kilns in Texas. They inspired a grassroots rebellion in DFW that forced Ash Grove to court. Their closure is one more step in bringing all of the Midlothian cement plants into the modern era,” said Jim Schermbeck, Director of Downwinders at Risk, the local clean air group founded almost 20 years ago to oppose the burning of hazardous waste in the Midlothian kilns. It was Downwinders who broke the story on January 4th that Ash Grove was finally considering dry conversion in Midlothian, while also being the target of a national EPA enforcement action. The group encouraged it supporters to launch waves of e-mail blasts to both the company’s headquarters and EPA administrators urging Ash Grove to commit to dry conversion, while also seeking to include the switch as part of the agency’s list of demands in any national settlement. Nine days later, Ash Grove submitted its permit amendment to the TCEQ. Regulators admitted that the publicity probably accelerated the final corporate decision in Kansas City. In 2006, Downwinders successfully pushed for inclusion of a recommendation in that year’s DFW smog plan that urged local governments to buy cement exclusively from the state’s dry kilns to provide an incentive for wet kiln operators to modernize. Schermbeck and the group then began their “green cement campaign” that methodically collected agreements from city and county governments that cut Ash Grove off as a potential cement supplier for municipal and county projects. Dallas passed the nation’s first green cement policy in May of 2007 during the last days of Mayor Laura Miller’s term. Over the next two years, Ft. Worth, Arlington, Plano, Denton and the Dallas County School District passed green cement policies – all unanimously. When Tarrant County passed a green cement policy by a vote of 5-0 in November 2008 Ash Grove decided it couldn’t afford to lose any more customers and took the County and all the rest of the green cement cities to court. Last January, when it looked like Dallas and Arlington might be forced to give up their policies as part of a settlement with Ash Grove, Downwinders stepped in and was praised for reaching a compromise that saved the policies’ intent to force modernization, but removed the threat of Ash Grove legal action. Meanwhile, in the 2007 and 2009 state legislatures, green cement bills garnered a bi-partisan group of sponsors including former State Senator Kim Brimer, his successor, State Senator Wendy Davis, and Tarrant County State Representative Vickie Truett. Schermbeck noted that the green cement campaign had been of the few grassroots environmental success stories during the tenure of Governor Rick Perry. Ash Grove’s decision was also just the latest victory in a string of wins by citizens that have transformed each of the three Midlothian cement plants into more modern facilities. In 2005, Holcim Cement reached a settlement with Downwinders that resulted in the first use of a specific pollution control technology that is now standard equipment on new kilns. In 2008, TXI Cement suspended operation and then closed its four wet kilns, and stopped burning hazardous waste. Now Ash Grove is converting the last wet kilns in Texas. Comparing the emissions generated by all of the Midlothian cement plants before and after the changes sought by Downwinders over the last two decades, there’ll be at least 23,000 tons less air pollution when the new Ash Grove kiln goes online in 2014 than at the peak of the bad old days in the late 1990’s and early part of the 21st Century at all three plants – not including the reduction of an estimated hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases like CO2 that weren’t even officially counted until recently.“I think anyone will be hard pressed to find a more successful grassroots group in the state of Texas over the last 10 years than Downwinders at Risk,” said Schermbeck. “It’s hard work to win even one of these concessions from industry. To be able to reduce this amount of air pollution from all three plants is an accomplishment that will be hard to duplicate. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be trying.”Schermbeck noted that the group has been busy pressing for the adoption of advanced pollution controls at the cement plants that have been used for a decade in Europe but have yet to reach the U.S.  He expects to see those controls included in the next DFW clean air plan. “We’re not stopping until every cement plant in North Texas is a state-of-the-art facility.”


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