Downwinders and Others File Stay Against EPA Over Weakened Cement Plant Rules

by jim on April 19, 2013

buttonSeventeen years and counting – that's how long Downwinders at Risk has been fighting to get the EPA to modernize their rules for waste-burning cement plants. And we're not giving up.

On Wednesday, a national coalition of environmental and community groups that included Downwinders at Risk asked a federal court to stay a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to weaken and delay Clean Air Act protection against toxic pollution from cement plants.

By the agency’s own calculations, the delay will cause between 1,920 and 5,000 avoidable deaths and will allow cement plants to release an additional 32,000 pounds of mercury into the environment.

The complete list of groups seeking relief include Cape Fear River Watch, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, Downwinders at Risk,  Friends of Hudson, Huron Environmental Activist League, Montanans Against Toxic Burning, PenderWatch & Conservancy, and the Sierra Club, all of which have members who live and work in close proximity to cement plants and have suffered from cement plants’ excessive pollution for many years. Earthjustice filed the stay motion on their behalf in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A copy of the groups’ motion can be found here: Cement Motion to Stay Rule

Cement plants are among the nation’s worst polluters, emitting vast quantities of particulate matter, mercury, lead, and other hazardous air pollutants.

“As if gutting and delaying the rule were not bad enough, EPA has essentially created a compliance shield for the industry, making it impossible for citizens to hold facilities accountable for their toxic emissions. These changes in the cement rule are irresponsible and reckless,” said Jennifer Swearingen, of Montanans Against Toxic Burning.

“Los Angeles is ringed by cement plants, and three of them operate near my home in Rosamond,” said Jane Williams, of Sierra Club and Desert Citizens Against Pollution. “The pollution from these plants hurts the people in this community and robs us of the outdoor lifestyle we came here to enjoy. We can’t wait two more years to get relief from these plants’ pollution. I don’t want anyone in these communities to be among the people this pollution is going to sicken and kill.”

Our own Midlothian is the cement capital of the United States and so Downwinders at Risk' Director Jim Schermbeck had something to say about the move. “The EPA seems to have learned nothing from having cement plants exploited as inadequate hazardous waste incinerators. As cement plants are once again becoming the nation’s Dispos-All, and new wastes are generating new emissions, the Agency is weakening air pollution controls and making it easier for cement kilns to poison their neighbors. It was wrong to turn kiln into incinerators in the 1980s and it’s wrong to try and do so again in the 21st century – especially accompanied by a roll back in regulations."

In North Carolina groups are fighting a massive proposed cement plant. “A gigantic foreign cement company wants to build one of the world’s biggest plants here,” said Allie Sheffield, of PenderWatch and Conservancy, a group that works to protect the coastal ecosystem in Pender County, North Carolina. “If this plant is built, EPA’s new rule will let it emit twice as much lead, arsenic, and particulate matter into our air and waters. At this point, I have to ask – why do they call it the Environmental Protection Agency?”

William Freese, of Huron Environmental Activist League, lives near what the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory lists as the dirtiest cement plant in North America for point source pollution. “This makes one wonder how the EPA, in violation of U.S. Court of Appeals’ order, can allow this company to do keep polluting for two more years. By the time they get around to finally doing what’s right, they won’t have any environment to protect,” Freese said.

“Federal law required EPA to put limits on this pollution more than a decade ago,” Earthjustice attorney James Pew said. “But under one administration after another, the agency has refused to put limits in place. Real people suffer as a result of EPA’s scofflaw behavior, and now they are going to court to say ‘enough is enough.’”

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act required EPA to limit cement plant’s emissions of hazardous air pollutants such as mercury. In 2000, a federal court had to order EPA to set these standards after the agency refused to do so.

In 2010, in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of community groups living in the shadow of cement plants, EPA finally set the standards that the Clean Air Act had required it to set more than a decade before. These standards would have significantly reduced cement plants’ emissions of soot, mercury, lead, benzene and other toxic pollutants by September of this year.

Rather than acting to clean up their pollution, cement companies attacked EPA’s new rule in court and in Congress. The attacks failed. The court denied their request to vacate or delay the standards, and legislative efforts to do the same failed to gain support on the Hill.

In 2013, however, the EPA voluntarily gave the cement industry the very relief it had failed to get in court or in Congress. It delayed emission reductions that were already more than a decade overdue for another two years, until 2015. Additionally, EPA weakened particulate matter standards and eliminated requirements that would have required cement plants to monitor and report their emissions to the public.

Citizens are down but not out. And we will never rest until we see cement plants regulated the way they should be when they burn so many different types of waste. We can fight this fight because of your support over the years. Please help us keep fighting by putting a bill in the tip jar. We need your help to raise our 2013 budget to keep our staff in the field working for your lungs. Thanks.

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