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Current, former owners of cement plant accused of Clean Air Act violations agree to $700K in penalties

July 12, 2013|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com

The current and former owners of the Holcim cement plant east of Hagerstown have agreed to pay $700,000 in civil penalties to resolve violations of the federal Clean Air Act that included sulfur-dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Holcim also has agreed to spend at least $150,000 on a mitigation project to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants through the replacement of an outdated loader with a newer model that complies with EPA standards, an EPA news release said.

The EPA announced it had reached the settlement with Holcim (US) Inc. and the plant’s previous owner, St. Lawrence Cement Co.

A proposed consent decree was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. It is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval, the EPA said.

“This has been a long-standing issue, and the company feels it is in its best interest at this point in time to find a resolution and move forward,” Holcim spokeswoman Robin DeCarlo said Friday from Waltham, Mass.

She said the plant on Security Road employs about 100 people.

The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the EPA, filed a complaint against Holcim and St. Lawrence in April 2011 alleging that between 2003 and 2007 “the companies unlawfully made modifications to the Hagerstown cement kiln that resulted in significant net increases of sulfur dioxide emissions without first obtaining the permit” required by the Clean Air Act.

The EPA said those modifications and upgrades included the installation of what is known as a mid-kiln injection system to allow the use of whole tires as a fuel source.

DeCarlo said Holcim continues to use tires at the plant near Hagerstown.

Large concentrations of sulfur dioxide affect breathing and may irritate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, the release said. People sensitive to the effects include asthmatics, individuals with bronchitis or emphysema, children and the elderly.

Sulfur dioxide also contributes to acid rain, the release said.

“Reducing sulfur dioxide emissions will benefit the communities located near the facility, particularly communities disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and vulnerable populations, including children,” the EPA said in the release. “Air pollution ... can travel significant distances downwind, crossing state lines and creating regionwide health problems.”


Company has closing option

As part of the judgment, the facility near Hagerstown will be required to install and continually operate up-to-date technology to control sulfur-dioxide emissions.

It also will require Holcim to regularly report to the government and continue to operate continuous emissions monitoring.

The proposed settlement provides Holcim with the choice of one of three options to achieve compliance.

Two of those options, A and B, would involve the company undertaking certain kiln changes and lowering emissions of sulfur dioxide, and in option B, also reducing nitrogen oxide, by September 2016.

The third option, C, is one “wherein the company would retire the Hagerstown kiln and relinquish all permits by Sept. 9, 2015,” the proposed settlement said.

“Depending on the option selected for compliance, Holcim will reduce emissions of (sulfur dioxide) by an amount no less than 230 tons per year. If Holcim selects Option A, an additional 92 tons per year of (nitrogen oxide) emissions reductions will also occur,” the proposed settlement said.


Action filed in 2011

The Justice Department action in 2011 filed on behalf of the EPA asked that the plant be shut down until the problem involving the emissions was fixed. The lawsuit also asked that Holcim and St. Lawrence be fined tens of thousands of dollars a day.

At the time, the case surfaced in a report by Handelszeitung, a publication in Switzerland, where Holcim is based, and spread to news organizations in the United States.

An attorney for St. Lawrence said in 2011 that the cement company received the blessing of the Maryland Department of the Environment to introduce a pollution-reducing measure at the plant, but the project inadvertently created other forms of pollution, The Herald-Mail reported at the time.

The EPA’s complaint said that St. Lawrence Cement maintained a “Tire Derived Fuel Project” at the plant in 2003, which involved using tires as a fuel source by feeding them through a chute into a cement kiln, the newspaper reported.

The commonly used process reduces nitrogen oxide output, but in that particular case, it unexpectedly increased sulfur dioxide levels, the newspaper account said.

At the Holcim plant near Hagerstown, stockpiled raw materials, including limestone from the quarry, are combined with other materials and processed through a rotary kiln to form clinker, small nodules that are further ground and combined with gypsum to produce cement.

During the clinker- and cement-producing process, the plant emits air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, according to an “overview of the company” section included in the proposed settlement.

Information on submitting comments is available at the Justice Department website at www.justice.gov.

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