Congress moves to axe EPA mercury emissions at cement plants

02/18/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Yesterday, the U.S. House passed a spending bill that would cut funding for the enforcement of certain federal laws. One of them would have allowed the US Environmental Protection Agency to continue enforcing tough rules on toxic emissions at cement plants, including one in the Tampa Bay area.

Late last year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection slapped international cement manufacturer Cemex with a hefty fine for emitting nearly ten times the amount of mercury legally allowed from its Brooksville facility. Now, U.S. House Republicans and some Democrats want to defund mercury regulations imposed at the federal level. David Guest, a managing attorney with Earth Justice’s Tallahassee office, said this isn’t a good idea.

He said one pound of mercury, when released into a waterway, can harm or kill half a million fish, and humans who come into direct contact with it risk death.

At issue are facilities that produce what’s called Portland Cement, something that’s in everything from roads to drywall. When Portland cement kilns burn coal for fuel, they emit mercury into the atmosphere. Some of that mercury ends up in waterways, in the form of methylmercury. That substance is toxic, and accumulates as it moves up the food chain. Guest said it can be an extremely dangerous neurotoxin to people who regularly eat fish, especially pregnant women and children.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the Brooksville facility is now in compliance with the law. Guest said it’s relatively easy to trace mercury emissions to their source.

Last September, the US Environmental Protection Agency began enforcing a law aimed at reducing all mercury emissions by up to 90 percent, as well as those of several other pollutants. Guest said the science behind the law is sound.

But now Congress has passed a law that would defund regulation of Portland cement emissions. Texas Member of Congress John Carter, a Republican, proposed the block. John Stone is a spokesperson for Representative Carter.

Stone said the rules ultimately harm the environment because they would in effect force the shutdown of US operations.

He said the amped-up regulation would also result in loss of eighteen hundred jobs, a number he attributes to the EPA. The EPA has also said the new rules would result in a maximum loss of 600 jobs as well as a possible net gain of 1300 jobs. Stone said the jobs gained wouldn’t be the same as those lost.

The measure, as part of a much larger spending bill, has to pass the Senate. Then, the President has to sign it into law. President Obama has reportedly said he’d veto the bill. If this happens, Stone said House Republicans would follow it up with Congressional Review, which would allow Congress to override the regulation.

But Earth Justice Attorney David Guest said he doesn’t think Representative Carter’s interests have anything to do with jobs or the environment.

The bill still has to clear the Senate. Guest said those concerned about the measure should contact the office of Democratic Senator Bill Nelson to voice their concerns. Representatives from neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor cement manufacturer Cemex were able to comment by deadline.

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