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Etched in Cement? Court Closes Kiln Loophole

PHOTO: Cement plants in Arizona and around the nation will no longer be able to get off the hook for releasing dangerous pollutants and claiming it was a mistake, after a ruling Friday by a federal appeals court. Photo credit: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Cement plants in Arizona and around the nation will no longer be able to get off the hook for releasing dangerous pollutants and claiming it was a mistake, after a ruling Friday by a federal appeals court. Photo credit: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons.
April 23, 2014

PHOENIX - A federal court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can no longer let cement plants off the hook for fines if the plants or their kilns release mercury and other dangerous pollutants and claim it was the result of what's known as an "upset" or a mistake.

Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson, who represented a number of groups united in cleaning up the pollution from cement plants around the nation, said companies often would use that loophole.

"'Sorry! Had an accident. Not our fault. We'll try not let it happen again' - like it happens over and over again." he said.

Johnson said the EPA and polluters now are on notice that standards have to be fully enforceable, although he's convinced they still could be tougher.

Arizona cement plants are located in Clarkdale, Rillito and near Paulden.

Barbara Warren, whose Citizens Environmental Coalition was a plaintiff, welcomed the ruling.

"This loophole, this malfunction provision - we're so glad that this was closed for cement plants," said Warren, the coalition's executive director. "We think it'll have more impact down the road, so I'm very pleased."

Johnson said Earthjustice has been working for more than a decade to reduce dangerous emissions from cement-making on behalf of groups concerned about their health effects, including learning disabilities and asthma in children.

"There are people who live in the shadow of these kilns," he said, "and who deal with these kilns, these plants on an everyday basis - and have to breathe in the mercury and the particulate matter, the lead, the hydrocarbons, the hydrochloric acid that these plants put out."

Johnson said he sees the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as also having a potential impact on efforts at combating climate change.

"The loophole that EPA put into the cement plant rule is one that it was proposing to put into its rule governing greenhouse-gas pollution from power plants," he said. "This ruling says they can't do that."

The decision comes just as the EPA launches an Earth Week initiative aimed at getting Americans to reduce their carbon footprint.

Details of the decision, in the case NRDC vs. EPA, is online at cadc.uscourts.gov.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ