According to the Dallas Morning News, TXI Cement is up for sale with at least two possible buyers, Vulcan and Holcim, mentioned in last Friday's story. Along with kilns in California, the company's Midlothian and Hunter, Texas cement plants are on the block as part of the deal.
As the news reports note, the timing is a little strange in that the construction industry, the barometer for all things cement, is only now rebounding out of its Great Recession doldrums, and TXI's profits are nowhere near it's pre-collapse heights. It could be that the latest generation of the Rogers' family to run the firm isn't all that interested in keeping it running, or that the two largest and restless corporate shareholders, who now own 51% of the company, are anxious to deal.
Of the two suitors listed in the News article, Holcim is one of the industry's international giants that has the large cash reserves, while Vulcan is smaller, US-based, and considered more of an Aggregates business with some cement plants in Florida.
On the other hand, Holcim already operates a huge cement plant across the street from TXI in Midlothian. It's hard to imagine the company needing to double its manufacturing capacity in DFW. But perhaps TXI's California market share makes the deal look attractive as a whole and the Midlothian plant would be spun off to a third party. For Vulcan, it looks like a way to go from a regional powerhouse to a national one by buying plants in two large, influential state economies.
Holcim is a leader in the new waste-burning revival within the cement industry. Its Midlothian cement plant already has a permit to burn a long list of industrial wastes, although it's not as long as TXI's. During the economic downturn,TXI was given permission by Rick Perry's TCEQ (without public notice or participation) to burn a variety of new wastes like car "fluff" and plastics , but reportedly didn't have the capital to build the infrastructure needed to convey the wastes to the kilns. A new owner like Holcim might have the cash to fix that, and fixing that would mean lots more waste-burning. Buying TXI's Midlothian plant would mean buying its waste-burning permits as well, opening up new waste markets for Holcim without having to go to the trouble of a permitting process.
If Vulcan or some other middle-size player buys TXI, you can be sure they'll run the plants 24/7 as much as possible to recoup their investment and take advantage of better economic times. More production equals more air pollution, even with more modern controls forced by recent clean air plans and citizen campaigns.
But it's also possible to imagine a scenario where Holcim buys TXI, uses it's Midlothian limestone quarry to add to its own local reserves, but doesn't necessarily have the incentive to run both cement plants into the ground to justify the purchase price.
A sale of TXI by the Dallas-based Rogers family would be milestone in the industry, and in North Texas. TXI opened its first cement kiln in Midlothian in 1960. You can still see it there on Hwy 67, along with three other, older "wet" kilns that operated for 48 years before being shut down in 2008. They're all scheduled to be demolished later this year, leaving only the circa-2000 TXI Kiln #5 as a landmark. The times, they are a changin'. Stay tuned.
A new study being published in the November issue of Epidemiology concludes that even low levels of pollution from solid waste incinerators causes an increase in premature births downwind.
Italian researchers examined over 21,000 births to women living within four kilometers of one of eight solid waste incinerators operating in the Emilia-Romagna region.
"Each newborn was georeferenced and characterized by a specific level of exposure to incinerator emissions, categorized in quintiles of PM10, and other sources of pollution (NOx quartiles), evaluated by means of ADMS-Urban system dispersion models. We ran logistic regression models for each outcome, adjusting for exposure to other pollution sources and maternal covariates.
Preterm delivery increased with increasing exposure….A similar trend was observed for very preterm babies. Several sensitivity analyses did not alter these results. Maternal exposure to incinerator emissions, even at very low levels, was associated with preterm delivery"
Now, you can reassure yourself that we have no single-purpose solid waste incinerators around these parts the way they do on he East Coast or Midwest, so we don't have to worry about this kind of threat. But that's not entirely accurate.
We do have solid waste incinerators in North Texas, they're just called cement kilns. And we have more incinerator capacity than anyone else in the country when it comes to cement kilns.
And, as it turns out, these cement kilns are expanding their lists of available "fuel" to include solid wastes, as well as coal – medical, municipal, and "hard to burn" plastics, as well as car parts, shingles and carpet remains. It's all part of the new wonderful world of commercial garbage burning. If the kilns happen to make some money in the process of turning themselves into under-regulated incinerators, well, all the better for their operators.
For example, and try not to throw up, in the Philippines, the local cement plant is marketing the burning of "Holcimables." What are "Holcimables" you ask? They're "plastics – styrofoam, sando bags, cellophanes and foil packs – textile and rubber." Yes, the same company that operates a cement kiln in North Texas is burning styrofoam in the name of environmental-friendliness in the Philippines. You can bet the Italian incinerators included in this new study were burning some of the same kinds of wastes with the same ingredients.
Burning stuff is bad, whether it's in an incinerator or a cement kiln. And industry is making it very hard to tell the difference.
A funny thing happened to Dallas Morning News automobile columnist Terry Box while he was out test driving a new Dodge pick-up truck – it self-immolated and burned to ashes on the side of the road. As he writes about it, his experience is both funny and terrifying. But something he noted in how cars and trucks are made these days caught our eye:
"Open the hood of your late-model car or truck, and you’ll see a half-acre of plastic — actual engine pieces like valve covers, caps and containers for various liquids.
Thirty years ago, most of the pieces under the hood were metal and resistant to fire.
A fire in a modern vehicle burns fast and furiously. What’s intact for the moment can be gone or enveloped in toxic smoke in a matter of seconds."
Yep. When we've described the lovely new cement additive called ASR – Auto Shredder Residue – we've often talked about all the vinyl seats, dashboard and switches that get stipped out of a car and shredded, then thrown into a cement kiln. We really haven't talked about all the plastic in the engine compartment that would also be included in this new "fuel" that TXI has already been permitted to burn at its Midlothian cement plant.
As more and more of every car is made of "soft materials" – that is, not metal – more and more of it becomes fodder for cement kilns. This is material that could be recycled but isn't, and as long as it's cheaper just to burn it, there won't be amrket for recycling it.
Here's the thing, burning plastic creates bad kinds of pollution, including the creation of Dioxin, one of the most potent posions ever discovered by science. The same "toxic smoke" Terry Box saw pouring off of his burning Ram pick-up is created when you throw the same plastic parts into a cement kiln. The cement industry would like you to think that all of that is taken care of by the polluton control measures installed at the kilns, but it's not. There's no real time Dioxin montoring, much less any kind of monitoring for the host of other exotic fumes coming off burning plastic of various kinds. They barely even know what or how to test for such pollutants, but that doesn't keep the cement industry from marketing its kilns as "Long, Hot, and Good for America"™
If you're an old-timer, you might remember an earlier episode or two that occurred when the cement industry, including TXI, assured everyone that it could burn hazardous waste and make it completely disappear into water vapor. Remind us, how did that turn out?
In one of the most ambitious and far-ranging efforts of its kind ever attempted, the newly-published results of a 10-year study from Spain's national Center for Epidemiology looked for 33 different kinds of cancer in dozens of Spanish communities that hosted "waste incinerators and installations for the recovery or disposal of hazardous waste." They found "a significant higher risk from all cancers in towns near these industries."
Cancer impacts were greater around waste incinerators and scrap metal operations – you know like the three giant Midlothian cement plants upwind of DFW that are burning larger and larger amounts of industrial wastes and the steel mill across the street from them melting scrap cars.
Researchers used standard computer modeling to estimate what cancer rates should be in the host communities and then compared them to what they actually were.
"Excess cancer mortality was detected in the total population residing in the vicinity of these installations as a whole and, principally, in the vicinity of incinerators and scrap metal/end-of-life vehicle handling facilities, in particular. Special mention should be made of the results for tumors of the pleura, stomach, liver, kidney, ovary, lung, leukemia, colon–rectum, and bladder in the vicinity of all such installations. Our results support the hypothesis of a statistically significant increase in the risk of dying from cancer in towns near incinerators and installations for the recovery or disposal of hazardous waste."
There has never been any kind of systematic study of cancer rates around and downwind of the Midlothian cement plants. From the Texas birth defect registry we know that certain reproductive organ birth defects that are associated with pollutants known to have been released from the plants are higher than the state average in Ellis County.
This study, as well as the recent warnings of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry about the public health dangers of the pollution coming from the Midlothian cement plants arrives at a time when the plants are gearing up to add plastics, car interiors, and other kinds of garbage to their lists of "fuels" that will be burned. After losing the fight to be able to burn hazardous wastes willy-nilly in cement plants, the industry is turning to industrial and municipal garbage that can produce many of the same worrisome kinds of pollution. This is what makes the EPA rules governing the emissions of the nation's cement plants – rules that are still in play – so very important.
Exposure to these pollutants is known to have a number of effects on human health, but their effects on human fertility — and the likelihood of couples achieving pregnancy– have not been extensively studied."Our findings suggest that persistent organochlorine pollutants may play a role in pregnancy delay," said the study's first author, Germaine Buck Louis, Ph.D., director of the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at NIH.Dr. Buck Louis added that individuals may limit their exposure by removing and avoiding the fat of meat and fish, and by limiting the consumption of animal products.
Two notoriously polluting industries find solace in each other's ability to scratch each other's dirty, irritating itches.
Cement plants are always looking for ways to get paid to burn other people's garbage. It takes a lot of energy to fire a 20-foot flame at 2000 degrees 24/7 in order to cook rock. It also takes a lot of "additives". That's why cement plants started burning other companies' hazardous wastes in the 70's and 80's. Because of a loophole in federal law, 50-year old cement plants with no modern pollution controls were allowed to charge for burning highly toxic wastes from refineries and chemical plants that were otherwise supposed to be going to fully-regulated hazardous waste disposal sites.
But those official sites cost more to use, and the cement plants cost so little. That's right, cement plants charged these polluters to dispose of their wastes, but not more than the incinerators or landfills with all the bells and whistles of "regulation." In this way, cement plant operators double dip – they don't have to shell out as much for fuel they'd have to buy, and they get paid a profit to be a Dispos-All for industry. And by the way, industry calls this "recycling."
Because of the persistence of Downwinders at Risk and other citizens' groups, this loophole has been slowly but surely closing, meaning less and less hazardous waste is being burned in US cement kilns. From a peak of almost 30 kilns burning toxics in the in the 1990's, we're now down to less than a dozen. But to take the place of this lucrative lost market, cement plants across the country are turning to "non-hazardous" waste to burn. Tires, but also municipal garbage, plastic wastes, used oils, shingles, car parts and other kinds of wastes. TXI's new permit allows the burning of a dozen different kinds of industrial wastes at its huge kiln in Midlothian.
While these wastes are classified as "non-hazardous," when they come in the front gate of a kiln, it turns out they can release a lot of toxic pollution when they're incinerated. Metals like lead and cadmium and arsenic that don't burn (consult your High School physics textbook) are present. So are PCB's that have Dioxin. But burning plastic or chlorinated wastes means you can generate Dioxins even without having them present in the wastes to begin with. There's also Mercury in some of the wastes from cars that TXI and other kilns wants to burn.
So you have the release of exactly the same kinds toxic pollution you were concerned about with the burning of officially-classified hazardous wastes. But now, it's taking place "legally," – or at least it is until the law hasn't catches-up with the consequences of this kind of low-rent disposal operation. Have a waste you want to get rid of? Send it to your local neighborhood cement plant. They'll burn anything.
Enter the Natural Gas industry. They've been getting a lot of bad PR lately about their own waste problems. They have billions of gallons of what they like to call "fracking fluid," and what the rest of us would call "hazardous wastes" that's so toxic it must be disposed of in a deep underground injection well after only being used once, isolated from the rest of the earth's environment forever. But because of some well-placed loopholes, this "fracking fluid" is not considered "official" hazardous waste under federal rules. It will just unofficially injure you with its toxins.
As it turns out, injecting billions of gallons of "non-hazardous" toxic liquid under extremely high pressure near deep underground faults is a sure way to generate earthquakes. And that's what's been happening. Not only in North Texas, but other places where there are lots of injection wells. There was another small one last night in Midlothian, right down the highway from a large deep injection well near Venus. Along with the fact that most fracking fluid cannot be or is not "recycled" now and can only be used once before disposal, the fracking fluid generated by the gas industry has turned into an embarrassing sore point.
If only there was some other way the gas industry could dispose of their drilling wastes. If only they could appear to be more environmentally-friendly and save money at the same time……
And there you have the genesis of a happy marriage made in polluter heaven. I have a facility that needs stuff to burn and mix, and I'm not that particular about what the stuff has in it. You have lots of stuff that needs to be burned, er, "recycled" and you spend less when you send it to a facility like mine not specifically built to do that job. Everybody wins!
"The use of drilling wastes and muds is most preferable in cement kilns, as a cement kiln can be an attractive, less expensive alternative to a rotary kiln. In cement kilns, drilling wastes with oily components can be used in a fuel-blending program to substitute for fuel that would otherwise be needed to fire the kiln.
Cement kiln temperatures (1,400 to 1,500 degrees C) and residence times are sufficient to achieve thermal destruction of organics. Cement kilns may also have pollution control devices to minimize emissions. The ash resulting from waste combustion becomes incorporated into the cement matrix, providing aluminum, silica, clay, and other minerals typically added in the cement raw material feed stream.
Recent studies have shown that it is feasible to use such drilling waste as substitute fuel in a cement plant. The drilling mud can be processed by a centrifuge to separate remaining water, compressed by a screw into a solid pump and conveyed.
The cement companies can contribute to sustainability also by improving their own internal practices such as improving energy efficiency and implementing recycling programs. Businesses can show commitments to sustainability through voluntary adopting the concepts of social and environmental responsibilities, implementing cleaner production practices, and accepting extended responsibilities for their products."
For veterans of The Cement Wars of the 1990's this rhetoric is certainly recycled. Cement Plants are Long, Hot and Good for America! Cement plants are the best disposal devices ever. They just make everything go "poof." That's why they were built specifically to dispose of wastes of all kinds – oh wait. nope. They were built to make cement. But how great is it that they can make an entire sideline business out of dealing with, and spewing toxic chemicals into the environment?
Even though the specific article deals with the Middle East, is there any question that a cement plant in Texas or Pennsylvania, or Ohio won't try to make the case for accepting drilling wastes, if they haven't already? The permit modification TXI received to burn plastics and car wastes from the State of Texas required no public notice at all. Citizens only found out after the fact. There are only about a dozen players left in the international cement market. If they're discussing this in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, chances are they're talking about it in Zurich, Heidelberg, and Midlothian too.
Developments like this are why its important to tell the EPA it's making a big mistake to delay and change its cement plant toxic emission rules. The industry's "inputs" are changing rapidly. Two years is too long. We need the protection of those new rules now. If you haven't already clicked and sent EPA an e-mail saying you oppose this delay, the "official" comment period is over, but it couldn't hurt for the folks in DC to see your "unofficial" opposition.
It's also a lesson in why "everything is connected." Don't live near a gas well? If you live in DFW, chances are you live downwind of a kiln that could be burning the wastes of gas wells.
The cement industry calls it "alternative fuel" or "co-generation," but it's really just waste burning. This was true during the 1980's and 90's when the cement industry began converting kilns to large hazardous waste incinerators, and it's true now that the industry is trying to turn kilns into giant garbage incinerators. In one permit request after another across the country, cement plants are adding not just used tires and oil, but plastics wastes, automobile interiors and anything else they can get in bulk to the list of "fuels" they can burn. Locally, TXI's 2011 "permit amendment" allows the Midlothian kiln to burn a long lists of industrial wastes. To see where this leads, look no further than Germany, where fully 61% of all fuel consumed in that nation's cement kilns in 2011 was provided by plastics, used tires, and used oils. It's worth noting that European emissions requirements are usually stricter than EPA's, but the figure is still alarming since it was only about 30% in 2000.
You already know how much the current Perry-fueled Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has stripped the right of citizens to contest permits being issued like candy to polluters in Austin. In Texas, you can decide to change your entire fuel regimen, from coal to coal and tires, and plastics, and car interiors, as the TXI cement plant in Midlothian recently did, and not face any public questioning at all. Or say you want to tear down your old plant and put up a new one. You don’t need any public comment or hearing for that either, as Ash Grove found out when it applied for its “permit amendment” to rebuild its Midlothian cement plant. There has been a very premeditated and methodical campaign to make it impossible for any member of the public to interfere in the least bit with the right of the polluter to do any damn thing they want. Today, TCEQ is voting to go after other state agencies’ ability to interfere as well, making it impossible, for example, for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to intervene in a case where the state parks might be impacted by a polluter. The proposed rules would “have a significant impact on the TPWD’s ability to carry out its statutory and regulatory obligations and its ability to protect the shared public resources of the State of Texas that are under TPWD’s jurisdiction,” the agency wrote TCEQ in protest. It’s just another effort to destroy the checks and balances of a regulatory system that was already gamed toward industry in the first place. By the time this Governor leaves office, it may well be criminal offense to even ask for a public hearing.
Here's a story from Florida about the Brooksville Cemex cement plant's new permit that displays the quintessential spin from the cement industry about their transformation into garbage burners. 1)The headline uses the preferred industry term of "alternative fuels" instead of garbage. 2) It leads with all the feel-good fuzzy bio-garbage like peanut shells and wood chips. Only further down do they let you see the rest of the list – "including plastics, carpet, roofing materials and wood treated with creosote. Included, too, are so-called engineered fuels such as cleanup debris from natural disasters, processed municipal solid waste, dried and sanitized sewage bio-solids, noninfectious hospital materials, expired pharmaceuticals and confiscated narcotics." 3) It makes sure you know that this new garbage burning will shrink the plant’s carbon footprint and lower emissions of toxic chemicals like Mercury – but the plant will not be amending its operating permit to reflect those proposed decreases. 4) for all the talk of "alternative fuels," the plant is mainly still burning coal and tires, both of which it's been burning for a long time. The largest expense of running a cement plant is fuel costs. The industry is always finding a way to cut those costs. In the 1980's and 90's it tried turning cement kilns into hazardous waste incinerators by getting paid by polluters to burn their crap for less money than the pros. That met with quite a bit of public resistance and new regulations that made it harder to keep doing that. So now the industry is pivoting toward a laundry list of "non-hazardous" wastes – municipal garbage, sewage, medical waste, plastics, car interiors – garbage. Except that anyone who's ever studied the the history of American garbage incineration – and there's quite a history – knows there's nothing non-hazardous about the practice. Just because a waste isn't classified by EPA as a "hazardous" waste coming in the front door doesn't mean it doesn't emit hazardous air pollution when it's burned or carted off as ash out the back door. And even thought there's a lot of boasting about emission decreases, the industry isn't backing up that talk with real cuts in their permits. Places like Midlothian, home of three huge cement plants, and a concentration of cement manufacturing unmatched anywhere else in the US, are looked upon as nothing but large "landfills in the sky" to both waste producers and the cement plant operators themselves. TXI's Midlothian plant, directly south and upwind of DFW, just received a new permit "amendment" last June that allows them to burn the same kind of long list of garbage as the Florida kiln. They got this without any public notice or hearing or anything. None required as long as TXI promises, cross their heart, that the emissions won't increase above what they are now. And if they do? We won't even be able to know for sure until a test burn that will occur after they start burning garbage – they can wait up to a year to do the testing. This is why public participation is an over-arching issue in Texas now.Without it, there are no checks and balances. Only more experiments taking place in your lungs.
Sunday marked the official start of the 2012 ozone season. Unofficially, it began the week before on March 24th, when both the Frisco and “Dallas North” ozone monitors operated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recorded violations of the new federal standard of 75 ppb, and then on March 25th, when the Keller, Grapevine, and Eagle Mountain Lake monitors also all recorded violations of the 75 standard. Frisco came within less than a single ppb of being in violation of the old 85 ppb and set the record for the highest March ozone reading TCEQ’s ever recorded. It’s this old 85 ppb standard that DFW is still trying to meet even as the regulatory goalposts have been moved back to account for new science linking smog to heart attacks and strokes at lower levels of exposure. In submitting its new clean air plan to EPA to finally get below 85 ppb, you might remember that TCEQ predicted that in 2012, DFW would see the lowest ozone averages ever recorded – primarily because so many people are replacing their older more polluting cars with newer, cleaner ones. This prediction even came two months after the end of the 2011 ozone season showed DFW had worse smog than Houston. No, state leaders were not deterred by naysayers in taking a strong, optimistic stand for clean air when it came time to turn-in its compliance plan for EPA. Theirs is a faith-based initiative. According to Austin, all 18 DFW air quality monitors will be registering lower levels of smog in 2012 than any of them have ever recorded in the decade since monitoring began in DFW. At some monitors, TCEQ predicts summer maximums will drop by 40 parts per billion or more, an annual decrease no monitor in DFW has ever registered. Given the high readings from March already, it’s hard to believe that this prediction could possibly come true, but hey, they’re the experts,right? So put away those gas masks and get out and breathe that fresh North Texas air. Haze? No, that’s just steam.