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New air rules could affect cement plants in Houston

Federal regulators are proposing tougher new air quality standards for Portland cement plants, just as a federal stimulus package creates a greater demand for concrete.

Existing plants, including the Clinchfield Cemex plant in Houston County — Georgia’s only major cement plant — would face limits on their mercury emissions for the first time.

The changes also would tighten limits on other air pollution for both old and new cement plants.

The outcome of the debate could cause Houston American Cement, which has plans for a plant next to Cemex, to re-evaluate its plans, said project director Ed Buehler.

“At this point in time, I don’t think (the proposed limits are) achievable for this plant to reach,” he said. “This adds another level of uncertainty to an already major investment.”

The Houston American project has already been delayed as the company waits for the economy and cement demand to stabilize.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s draft rules would dramatically reduce the amount of mercury, hydrocarbons, hydrochloric acid and particulate matter allowed from kiln smokestacks.

Mercury can damage fetuses and cause developmental problems. The other pollutants can be toxic or cause breathing and heart problems.

Cement plants grind limestone, usually from an adjacent quarry, with other raw materials before heating them in a kiln. The resulting product, called clinker, is ground and mixed with a little gypsum to produce concrete.

Cemex officials said they are still evaluating how the rules could affect that company’s plants.

“We don’t know the theoretical costs right now because we are first trying to determine what technology exists and if it could even be applied to any of our plants,” Jennifer Borgen, Cemex communications director, wrote in an e-mail.

The cement industry contends that the proposal could put more than half of American cement plants out of business just as the demand for cement is likely to skyrocket. Congress’s $787 billion economic stimulus package is expected to create a building boom for roads, bridges and schools, all of which rely on concrete.

“Every recovery dollar is going to buy less economic impact in terms of employment if the price of cement goes up,” said Scott Segal, a consultant on regulatory and communications matters for the Portland Cement Association. “If you’ve got to import the cement, you’ll be creating infrastructure jobs. ... You’ll just be creating them in another country.”

The EPA modeled the financial impact of the proposed changes and found the benefits would outweigh estimated costs of $222 million to $684 million annually in 2013. Benefits were calculated at $2.2 billion to $11 billion annually — including the value of preventing 620 to 1,600 premature deaths a year.

THE CEMENT INDUSTRY IN HOUSTON

At more than 80 years old, the Cemex Clinchfield plant is one of Houston County’s two longest continuously operating industries, said Morgan Law, executive director of the Houston County Development Authority. The authority was a partner in nominating Cemex for Georgia small business Manufacturer of the Year for 2009.

Law said the plant has a good environmental record. Cemex was selected as the EPA Energy Star 2009 Partner of the Year for its efforts to reduce its energy use and carbon footprint at all its plants. According to the company, Clinchfield is one of five Cemex plants to have individually received the EPA Energy Star certification, more than any other U.S. cement company in 2008.

With about 120 employees, Cemex is a medium-sized employer for Houston County, but one of the larger manufacturers, Law said.

According to the company, the Clinchfield plant generates $6 million in annual payroll and more than $500,000 in taxes.

New plants, such as the planned Houston American manufacturer, already have more strict emissions limits than existing kilns.

Houston American expects to add nearly 100 jobs when its $200 million cement plant is built on Houston County’s rich limestone deposit. The company, a subsidiary of Brazilian company Votorantim Cimentos North America, announced in March 2007 that it would begin construction last summer and begin operating next year.

But although the plant has received all its environmental permits, “we’re just waiting out the economic doldrums,” Buehler said.

Industry analysts predict a sustainable turnaround by 2012, and the Houston plant remains on hold until then, he said.

AIR POLLUTION

According to EPA documents, Cemex is a significant source of air pollution. Of about 75 major emitters, Cemex ranked in the top third (21st) for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution, and even higher (13th) for particulate matter pollution in 2007.

Existing cement plants do not face limits on their mercury emissions, but the EPA used data from 89 kilns to calculate how much mercury the average plant produces, said Keith Barnett, with the EPA office of air quality standards. The proposed standard is about 60 percent lower than that.

The rules would allow only 30 percent of the hydrocarbon pollution now acceptable per plant, and one-sixth of the fine particle pollution, Barnett said.

The Portland Cement Association argues that the proposed standard isn’t achievable for many plants. Mercury and sulfur content in limestone varies in different regions, so some plants would have to remove much more pollution than others.

“This kind of discrimination between have and have-not states may not be legal,” Segal said.

Barnett said EPA recognizes this concern and wants public comments on it. He acknowledged that the agency is aware of two plants — both on the West Coast — that can’t meet the standard no matter what.

Georgia is likely to be in better shape.

“Of states that produce cement, Georgia is one of the most favored in terms of its limestone content,” said Buehler, with Houston American. “That was a factor in our (company’s) analysis for site selection.”

Segal emphasized that cement plants need to be where the demand is, because the material is so costly to transport.

Buehler said Georgia already produces just 20 percent of the cement used in the state.

The proposed rules remain open to public comment until Sept. 4.

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

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