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The Planet
Burning Rubber

Toxic waste and tires join traditional dirty fuels at contested cement factories.

By Brian Vanneman

In the early ’90s, Paul Frazier, a leader of a Texas air quality task force, drove to a meeting in the town of Midlothian. He parked his sedan outside his motel, and awoke the next morning to find that much of the paint had been stripped from the car.

The paint had been eaten away by fine cement dust blown in from Midlothian’s three cement factories. Frazier had his car repainted, but the state has never implemented the recommendations of the task force.

" Given what cement dust can do to a paint job, you can imagine the effect that those fine particles have on human lungs," says Dr. Neil Carman, the Sierra Club’s Clean Air Program director for the Lone Star Chapter (Texas). Carman has been fighting the environmental and human health hazards posed by cement plants in Midlothian and other parts of the country for decades. Increasingly, Sierra Club chapters and groups across the country are mobilizing to fight the planned construction and expansion of nearby cement plants. Groups in Texas, New York, Missouri, Montana, and Colorado are in the midst of legal and political battles.

Though their main business is in creating bags of cement dust, or "clinker," for construction projects, the cement industry exploits a factory-sized loophole in federal pollution legislation, and in the process has become one of the dirtiest businesses around. Cement kilns have become de-facto hazardous waste incinerators, burning as fuel everything from oil refinery waste to printing dyes to tires and diapers.

Cement kilns must be maintained near 2,700°F all day, every day, in order to turn out cement; they consume fuel ravenously. Allowing a kiln’s temperature to drop greatly reduces efficiency. Factories that generate toxic waste pay around $1,000 per ton to regulated incinerators that burn the waste. They pay about $50 at the local cement kiln. "It’s like getting paid to put gas in your tank," says Carman. The cement industry earns an estimated $500 million a year for burning hazardous materials.

Of the approximately 120 cement factories currently operating in the United States. 14 burn hazardous waste. The TXI plant in Midlothian is one. Along with its two neighboring plants, it discharges some of the worst airborne emissions in the country.

Sierra Club volunteer Sue Pope, a town resident for 32 years, has watched the kilns take their toll. She suffers from asthma—though there is no history of the disease in her family—as do an unusually high number of other Midlothian residents. According to Dr. Carman, the dioxins emitted by factories are likely to be the cause of the abnormally high percentage of children born with Down’s syndrome and the multiple-calf pregnancies of many in the Popes’ cattle herd. Local children who routinely play outdoor sports have developed very rare types of cancer.

But despite the fact that many cement plants are leading double lives as hazardous waste incinerators, they do not receive the same scrutiny in the eyes of the EPA. In the late ‘90s, federal regulators established two widely differing sets of rules for certified waste incinerators and cement kilns—despite the fact that they’re burning equally dangerous materials. What’s more, operators of cement kilns do not own, and have refused to buy, the kinds of expensive air pollution controls used by incinerators.

Among the emissions produced by cement kilns are lead, mercury, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and dioxin, as well as fine cement dust. Heavy metals like lead and mercury accumulate in the living cells of plants and animals, break down slowly if at all, and have devastating effects on the nervous system, reproduction, and lungs. Particulate matter also causes severe respiratory problems.

While Sierra Club members in Texas fight the ongoing rule-breaking and pollution from their cement plants, organizers in Missouri and New York are attempting to fend off what would become, if built, the two largest cement factories on the continent.

The company behind both of the proposed plants is Holcim, a sprawling Swiss conglomerate that operates cement factories in 70 countries. (The plant operated by Holcim in Midlothian was fined $225,000 in 2002 for producing three times the amount of pollutants allowed in its permit.)

In New York, the Atlantic Chapter and other groups have stalled Holcim subsidiary Saint Lawrence Cement’s attempts to obtain the necessary permits. The proposed factory near the city of Hudson would include an vast complex of roads and docks, a 1,200-acre limestone mine, and a smokestack that would rise 40 stories above the 300-foot hill at its base; in all, about 70 stories above its neighbors: the town’s schools, hospitals, and water supply. As the chapter’s Moisha Blechman says, "A stack 70 stories above sea level is built for only one reason—to disperse toxic emissions over great distances."

Holcim has an even larger cement-making operation in the works just south of St. Louis, where the Isle du Bois Creek joins the Mississippi River. The Ozark Chapter, which runs an annual canoe trip through this stretch of the Mississippi, has not been as successful at blocking the permitting process. The Army Corps of Engineers has refused to complete an environmental impact statement for the project, despite recommendations from the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Missouri Governor Bob Holden, and many other public officials and citizens.

Holcim must wrangle three separate permits before breaking ground, and it’s well on its way to getting the first two, land reclamation and water. It’s saving what is likely to be the most bitterly opposed permit—air quality—for last. "They know that’s their hardest case to fight," says Diane Jean Albright, Ozark Chapter volunteer. "But they’ve figured that once they’ve built the harbor, once they’ve built the quarry, it’ll be much harder to stop them. We asked for an EIS from the beginning, saying that this process should not be piecemealed."

Several hundred miles upriver, at the headwaters of the Missouri river, the Montana Chapter is fighting another Holcim plant, stationed just around the bend from Headwaters State Park, an important landmark on Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Though the factory has been churning out cement there for decades, in late 2001 it made public plans to begin burning a million tires per year along with its traditional fuel. This did not sit well with Montana Chapter excom member Jeff van den Noort or his fellow volunteers

Though tire burning, which releases heavy metals, has been pitched to the public in Bozeman as "recycling," there are far safer ways to make use of old tires, as a component of roofing shakes, tennis courts, and roads. The chapter has succeeded in getting the state to require an environmental impact statement for the tire burning.

Temporary victory in Montana is tempered by the ongoing struggles in New York, Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere.

The solution is clear, says the Lone Star Chapter’s Carman. "We’ve got to demand that cement be brought within the same regulatory framework as other industries."

Take Action

Tell New York Governor George Pataki that you oppose construction of the Holcim-SLC plant near the city of Hudson. Write him at State Capitol, Albany, New York, NY 12224. Urge U.S. Representative Joe Barton of Texas—who represents Midlothian and serves on the House Air Quality Subcommittee—to stop Holcim’s Midlothian plant from exceeding its permitted emissions. Write him at U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Call for an EIS to be completed before the Holcim plant near St. Louis is allowed to move forward; contact Representative Richard Gephardt at 1236 Longworth Building, Washington DC, 20515.

For more about local groups fighting cement plants:

New York:


Missouri: Sierra Club Ozark Chapter


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