Baykeeper Update

Tightening Controls on Toxic Cement Plant Pollution

A Cupertino cement plant, the largest source of mercury pollution in the Bay Area, should face tougher requirements to reduce toxic pollution, Baykeeper recently told regulators.

Baykeeper urged strengthening controls on the Lehigh Southwest Cement Company under new regulations from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District that target pollutants released from facilities that manufacture Portland cement. The manufacture of Portland cement—which is used to make concrete for construction projects—results in air pollution laden with dangerous levels of toxic substances, including mercury, hydrocarbons, hydrochloric acid and nitrogen oxide. The Environmental Protection Agency recently released new federal standards that require local agencies to place strict controls on pollution from this $10 billion-per-year industry.

Lehigh is the sole manufacturer of Portland cement in the Bay Area. The facility emits approximately 435 pounds of mercury every year, making it the Bay Area’s largest source of mercury pollution. Mercury and other toxic pollutants from Lehigh’s smokestacks enter the Bay through a process called aerial deposition. Once the pollution enters the air, some falls directly back down on the Bay. Some also falls onto land, roadways and rooftops in the Bay watershed. When it rains, the pollution gets washed into the Bay, or into creeks or storm drains that empty into the Bay.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal. Waterborne bacteria often convert mercury to a more toxic form called methylmercury—a potent neurotoxin that remains in the environment and builds up in the food chain. When people and wildlife eat fish contaminated with methylmercury, it can cause neurological, developmental, immunological, reproductive and cardiovascular problems.

The Air Quality District’s proposed rule will require Lehigh to control toxic air emissions, including reducing hydrocarbons by 91% and mercury by 93%. Baykeeper supports these efforts to reduce mercury pollution in the Bay watershed, but we urged regulators to further strengthen the new requirements.

First, Baykeeper recommended that the Air Quality District tighten the proposed timeline. Currently Lehigh would have until 30 business days after the September 2013 deadline to show its compliance with federal and local standards; we argued that Lehigh should not only be required to demonstrate compliance by the deadline, but should also have to meet interim benchmarks to ensure that the plant is on its way to meeting the new rules before fall 2013.

Baykeeper also urged the District to impose fines on the company if it does not cut its mercury pollution.

Baykeeper will continue to watchdog this dangerous source of mercury pollution to the Bay and local waterways.