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As NPR has been reporting this week, toxic air pollution continues in hundreds of communities across the country two decades after a Republican president and Democratic Congress strengthened the Clean Air Act.
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In some cases, companies failed to meet pollution standards and regulators failed to respond quickly. This morning we look at a cement plant in Kansas that actually follows the rules but still generates anxiety downwind. NPR's Howard Berkes reports for our series, Poison Places.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: This cement plant is not on Environmental Protection Agency lists of polluters deserving extra scrutiny. It's not in violation of air pollution standards. It essentially has permission to pollute, which concerns Jeff Galemore as he drives around his Chanute, Kansas neighborhood.
JEFF GALEMORE: This person right here has cancer. His granddaughter has cancer. This gal has cancer. The one across the street from where I live has cancer. Two houses south of me has cancer. But they repeatedly tell us there's not a problem.
BERKES: Is there a connection, Galemore wonders, to the smokestack at the Ash Grove Cement Plant, a century-old employer and community benefactor on the edge of this town of 9,000? An elevator at the plant goes up nine stories to a windblown platform just below the top of the stack, where Ash Grove vice president Curtis Lesslie points up.
CURTIS LESSLIE: Step away from the side and look up at the stack and tell us what you see there.
BERKES: You want us to say that we're not seeing any smoke or emissions coming out of the stack?
LESSLIE: Yeah, I think it's remarkable. You're putting in hundreds of tons of dirt an hour and you have nothing coming out of the stack visibly.
BERKES: That dirt includes toxic junk so hazardous it's too dangerous to dump in landfills, including poison as industrial solvents and scraps from aluminum plants. Here it's incinerated as fuel in the massive spinning cement kiln beneath us 60 yards long and 3,000 degrees hot.
LESSLIE: The fact is that we have a continuous parameter that we track and demonstrate compliance on an ongoing basis with that standard. We have a standard and we comply with it.
BERKES: But complying with air pollution standards doesn't mean emissions are benign.
CRAIG VOLLAND: The cement kiln at Chanute was putting out about 500 pounds of mercury a year.
BERKES: In boom years, when the plant is operating full-blast, says Craig Volland, an environmental consultant who advises the Kansas Sierra Club on air pollution issues.
VOLLAND: That would compare to maybe about 170 pounds a year at a major coal-fired power plant. So in the year 2004, for example, the Chanute facility was the second-largest emitter of mercury in Kansas.
BERKES: And it and 15 other cement kilns in eight states get paid to burn hazardous waste, turning fuel costs into income. The Chanute plant was the first in the nation to get a permit for that 15 years ago. The permits allow more pollution of some toxins, compared to hazardous waste incinerators. Jim Pew is with the environmental group Earth Justice.
JIM PEW: The problem with cement plants that burn hazardous waste is that they're not designed to burn hazardous waste. In my view, it's a loophole for the cement industry.
BERKES: Compared to actual hazardous waste incinerators, older cement kilns, like the one in Chanute, can pump out four times the amount of certain toxic pollutants. New cement kilns can pump out 18 times the lead and cadmium and 15 times the mercury. But emissions are measured in such miniscule amounts that the differences between kilns and incinerators are insignificant, says Mike Benoit, an industry spokesman.
MIKE BENOIT: We're talking about nanograms. We're talking about micrograms, you know, millionths of a gram, billionths of a gram.
BERKES: But given the mercury emissions permitted at Ash Grove, the miniscule amounts can add up, which worries Jeff Galemore's father, John.
JOHN GALEMORE: I told the state and also the EPA, I say we have no protection other than you people. I said you are our frontline and our defense. And all we're asking is that you assure us with testing that we're safe.
BERKES: The regulators resisted in several testy meetings, citing the standards and Ash Grove's compliance. Carl Brooks is EPA's regional administrator.
CARL BROOKS: That's really the focus that both EPA and the Kansas department have, is to make sure that that permit is doing what it's designed to do, and that is provide an adequate margin of health and safety.
BERKES: EPA is actually trying to severely cut mercury emissions nationwide, especially at cement kilns, which are targeted for a 92 percent reduction. Kilns that burn hazardous waste would be exempt, given the special category of regulation Congress carved out for them alone. And EPA's Brooks seems completely unconcerned about the mercury emissions at Ash Grove.
BROOKS: Every test that's been done, every inspection that's been done, verifies that there is full compliance with every relevant part of that permit, including the mercury part.
BERKES: Compliance is based on a complicated formula, beginning with what's reasonably achieved with the technology available when standards were written. Also considered are the actual waste burned, operating conditions of the kiln, results of occasional test burns, and exposure estimates for people downwind. Stick to the formula, the regulators say, and everyone's safe. Not to Jeff Galemore.
GALEMORE: The reason I don't trust it is they battled us so hard to do the testing.
BERKES: And with him in his pickup is his sister Selene Hummer.
SELENE HUMMER: The government has to have someplace to dispose of this, so they're not going to really hammer away at somebody, because they got to have some place to put it.
BERKES: Regulators insist they're applying the standards as Congress directed, but the Galemores and others worry regulators are too cozy with industry. Ash Grove vice president Curtis Lesslie is a former Kansas regulator himself who drafted the company's first hazardous waste permit. And last year, Lesslie wrote to William Bider, the state's hazardous waste chief, about those new mercury standards for cement kilns. In an email obtained by NPR, Bider told colleagues the proposed rules would, quote, "help put our cement plants out of business." EPA is out of control, he wrote. John Mitchell is Bider's boss at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
JOHN MITCHELL: It disappoints me to see staff putting something like that in writing. It appears to me this is his personal opinion, but our position certainly is that if changes come, we will consider those as we regulate the businesses in Kansas.
BERKES: Back at Ash Grove in Chanute, the plant's cement kiln spins as hazardous waste burns inside. The persistence of the Galemores and others prompted Kansas officials to review area medical records. They found no excessive rates of cancer, but did identify more asthma than expected. They also agreed to sample air, water, sediment and fish. It's not clear when they'll have results or whether the testing will calm fears about Ash Grove and other cement kilns that burn hazardous waste. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This story in our series Poisoned Places was produced in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and Slate.
INSKEEP: NPR.org has an interactive map that you can use to find out about polluters and possible health risks where you live.