New EPA air rules could affect Middle Georgia plants

hduncan@macon.comDecember 27, 2012 

Continuing its tradition of issuing major new rules near the end of the year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has amended its air pollution rules for Portland cement plants such as Cemex Southeast in Houston County.

It also issued new rules for air pollution from boilers used at large industrial facilities like pulp mills such as Macon’s Graphic Packaging.

Environmental groups have accused the agency of bowing to industry pressure and issuing weaker rules than first proposed.

The most significant change for cement companies is probably the two-year extension the EPA gave for meeting the new standard. They now have until 2015 instead of 2013.

Cemex supports the new rule, which “allows Cemex additional time to make investments and operational changes necessary to comply with the new standards, including planning, engineering, permitting, testing and construction of various new technologies that will be used to implement the ... standards,” according to a statement provided by Cemex spokesman Sara Engdahl.

Cement plants grind limestone with other raw materials before heating them in a kiln. The resulting product is ground and mixed with gypsum to produce concrete.

The changes to the 2010 cement rule were made after both environmental groups and cement makers petitioned for reconsideration.

Engdahl’s e-mail indicated the Houston County Cemex plant, which employs about 125 people, will meet the standard by EPA’s deadline.

The company’s statement said Cemex “will continue its ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.” The plant was honored by the EPA Energy Star program for the sixth year in a row, an achievement matched by only one other American cement plant, according to the company. The plant also uses alternative fuels like peanut hulls, wood chips and “tire fluff” to avoid using coal.

The amended cement rule also adjusts the way cement kilns monitor their fine particle pollution such as soot, which can cause heart and lung problems. And it changes limits for that type of pollution, as well as air toxins.

EPA estimated the changes to the rule will save the industry $2 million.

But environmental groups, using the EPA’s own calculations of the environmental benefits of the 2010 rule, estimated the two-year delay will cause between 1,920 and 5,000 avoidable deaths and 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 34,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 260,000 days when people have to miss work because cement plants’ soot pollution has made them sick.

The other major air pollution rule issued last week placed new limits on mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants coming from certain types of large industrial boilers.

Andy Johnson, Graphic Packaging director of Government Affairs and Sustainability, said in a prepared statement that the company was “very active in providing input on the new EPA regulations,” which it anticipates will affect the Macon mill.

But several years ago the mill received permission from state environmental officials to retire several coal-fired boilers. The biomass boiler that will replace one of them was designed to meet the anticipated new rule, said Steve Hanson, Graphic Packaging Macon mill manager. However, an existing biomass boiler likely will need additional equipment to meet the standard, he said in a prepared statement.

“Our power boilers have been converted to burn natural gas, and the timing of their retirement will be evaluated after the startup of the new biomass boiler,” he said.

The final version of the boiler rule was different from the EPA’s original proposal, allowing more of certain kinds of pollution and less of others. Like the cement rules, compliance deadlines were pushed back, potentially giving affected mills until as late as 2016 to comply.

Johnson said extending the deadline will spread out demand on equipment suppliers and installers, which some had feared would be stretched too thin for all companies to meet the EPA’s original timeline.

Both the cement and boiler regulations were triggered by previous amendments to the Clean Air Act and were supposed to have been completed 12 to 15 years ago.

Eric Cornwell, manager of stationary source permitting for the air branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said he and his colleagues have not yet analyzed how the new rules will affect specific Middle Georgia plants.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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