Good News for People Who Breathe in North Texas

It’s a busy day for the Downwinders at Risk folks. First came the news earlier today that the feds are back in Midlothian, doing what they can (hopefully) to clean up the cement kilns that contribute to air pollution all over North Texas. Now comes news (full release after the jump) that for the first time in the United States, a cement kiln will be outfitted with something called a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system. It’s a pollution-control measure, and it’ll be used in Illinois.

So why should you care? Because, as the Downwinders note, the move is “stunning and unexpected,” and it will force the Midlothian cement kilns to install the same measures — which they and the TCEQ previously claimed were “technically infeasible.” Here’s what Jim Schermbeck, the head Downwinder, had to say: “It’s a severe understatement to say that this is a rebuke to TCEQ and the three cement plant operators in Midlothian. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge vindication for our work, and the work of Dr. Armendariz [the newly appointed EPA regional administrator].”

Bottom line: this is very good news for North Texas.

Washington — In a stunning and unexpected move, the EPA and LaFarge Cement announced an historic agreement today that called for the building and operation of the first Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system on an American cement plant.

The concession came as part of a nationwide New Source Review settlement with LaFarge that covered all 13 of its US cement plants and involved various permit violations investigated by the EPA. LaFarge is the nation’s second largest cement manufacturer. The SCR unit will be installed on the company’s new Kiln #1 at its Joppa, Illinois plant.

Local environmentalists said the decision would pave the way for installation of SCR on the 10 Midlothian cement kilns south of Dallas as part of the new clean air plan DFW will have to write to meet lower national ozone standards. Those kilns account for fully half of all industrial ozone-forming emission in North Texas. SCR is known to reduce ozone-forming emissions from cement kilns by 90% or more.

“Today’s action removes any doubt that SCR pollution control can be, and should be, required for the Midlothian kilns – the largest concentration of cement manufacturing in the US.” said Jim Schermbeck, director of DFW-based Downwinders at Risk, which has been promoting the technology since 1999. Schermbeck predicted installation of SCR on the cement plants could reduce ozone levels in DFW by 3 to 5 parts per billion – more than any other single control measure.

“From this point forward, SCR becomes the “Best Available Technology” for reducing ozone-forming pollution from cement kilns in America. As the only “non-attainment area” for ozone pollution that has so many cement kilns within its boundaries, DFW shouldn’t settle for anything less than the ‘Best Technology.”

Although in use in European cement kilns for a decade, the US cement industry, abetted by an industry-friendly Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, had lobbied hard to keep the technology from reaching American shores, and specifically Midlothian. Downwinders made Texas the central battleground for kiln SCR through its advocacy in back-to-back DFW clean air plans and pressing for state legislative action. It also repeatedly urged EPA to use its long list of enforcement actions against cement kilns that violated their permits to press for settlements that required installation of SCR. Apparently, EPA agreed.

As recently as this past spring, the cement industry sent lobbyists to Austin to argue against a bill sponsored by State Senator Wendy Davis that would have provided for a state-financed pilot-test of SCR at a Midlothian cement plant, claiming the technology was still impractical and hopelessly expensive. Despite bi-partisan support by North Texas Senators, the bill failed. It was the second time in as many sessions that the industry and TCEQ ganged-up to defeat it.

“It’s a severe understatement to say that this is a rebuke to TCEQ and the three cement plant operators in Midlothian, ” said Schermbeck. “And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge vindication for our work, and the work of Dr. Armendariz.”

Newly-appointed EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz teamed up with Downwinders in promoting SCR for the Midlothian kilns. Over the past four years, Dr. Armendariz has emerged as a national expert on the subject, writing national reports and testifying before the state legislature, city councils and commissioners courts.

As part of a legal settlement of its own over the failure of the 2000 DFW clean air plan, Downwinders forced the state to hire 5 independent cement experts to write an objective report on SCR. At the time it was the most comprehensive and specific study of the technology in the country. The experts’ conclusions, published in 2006, embarrassed TCEQ by recommending SCR as both “economically and technologically feasible.” While TCEQ has ignored or even twisted the conclusions of the report, it’s been widely cited by environmental regulators in other states and the EPA as proof that SCR was a viable pollution control strategy.

“While we would have liked the first US SCR system to have been installed in Midlothian as a result of our work here,” said Schermbeck, “we’re overjoyed to see the EPA finally agreeing that this technology is ready to be used in this country. It establishes a precedent that will not only aid public health in DFW, but in many other communities living downwind of cement plants.”

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