The federal government is suing the owner of a Hagerstown cement plant for polluting the air, a legal step the company said is unnecessary and surprising.
Attorney William Bumpers said St. Lawrence Cement tried to introduce a pollution-reducing measure at the Security Road plant, with the blessing of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
When that project caused an unintended consequence of creating other pollution, the company worked to fix it, he said.
However, the Justice Department, on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, filed a civil action in April against Holcim (US), the current owner, and St. Lawrence Cement, the previous owner, alleging they violated the federal Clean Air Act.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, asks that the plant be shut down until the problem is fixed and that Holcim (US) and St. Lawrence Cement — now known as Holcim (Canada) — be fined tens of thousands of dollars a day.
The case surfaced in a report Wednesday by Handelszeitung, a publication in Switzerland, where Holcim is based, and spread to U.S. news organizations.
Although Handelszeitung speculated that Holcim and St. Lawrence face more than $100 million in fines, the EPA's complaint doesn't state when the alleged violations began, meaning the court eventually would decide the fine if the companies are found guilty.
Bumpers said St. Lawrence Cement took steps several years ago to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions.
Nitrogen oxide is a component of ground-level ozone, which leads to smog, a breathing hazard, according to the EPA.
The EPA's complaint mentions St. Lawrence Cement's "Tire Derived Fuel Project" at the plant in 2003. Bumpers said tires are fed through a chute into a cement kiln and become a fuel source.
The often-used process reduces nitrogen-oxide output, Bumpers said, but in this case, it unexpectedly elevated the level of sulfur dioxide, another air pollutant.
According to the EPA website, exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma.
Bumpers said St. Lawrence worked for about 18 months to two years to reduce the new sulfur-dioxide emission. The level dropped, but still was higher than it was when the tire-fuel project began. St. Lawrence then applied for a state permit required for modifications that significantly increase sulfur-dioxide emissions.
Nearly three years later, the MDE hasn't acted on the permit application, Bumpers said.
MDE hasn't filed a complaint against Holcim over the tire-fuel project.
Two MDE officials were unable to provide any information on the matter on Thursday and Friday.
Holcim has been talking to the EPA and MDE about the sulfur-dioxide program, so "we're a little disappointed that (the EPA) decided to file the complaint," Bumpers said.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Horbuckle said he couldn't comment about a pending complaint.
The EPA's complaint alleges that the Hagerstown plant has been illegally emitting more than 100 tons a year of pollutants — including, but not limited to, sulfur dioxide — making it a "major emitting" facility.
The complaint asks the court to halt the plant's operations until it complies with the law.
The EPA also is seeking civil penalties, including:
- $25,000 a day for each violation until Jan. 30, 1997
- $27,500 per day from Jan. 31, 1997, through March 15, 2004
- $32,500 a day from March 16, 2004, through Jan. 12, 2009
- $37,500 a day for every day starting with Jan. 13, 2009.
St. Lawrence Cement owned and operated the Hagerstown plant from 1985 to Dec. 31, 2007, according to the complaint. Holcim has owned and operated the plant since Jan. 1, 2008.
The Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission's 2011 Business & Industry Directory lists the local Holcim plant as having 93 employees, including 67 full-timers represented by the United Steelworkers.
The EPA issued a notice of violation to Holcim on June 4, 2008, and notices of violation to Holcim and St. Lawrence Cement on June 23, 2009, the complaint said.