Sides agree: Newer means cleaner

Lafarge eager to build new cement plant just across Hudson River

STUYVESANT–How bad is the cement industry business in the United States these days? “It sucks,” said Lafarge Regional Environmental Manager Bill Voshell at an elaborate and well-staffed presentation by the company at Town Hall here last week.

He said demand for cement in this country is down as much as 40% over previous years, but that doesn’t mean the company, which has a plant in Ravena, just across the Hudson River from Stuyvesant, doesn’t see a bright economic future. On the contrary, Lafarge, a Canadian firm, has proposed building a new cement plant costing “several hundred million dollars” on the site of its existing facility.

 

It has filed its draft environmental impact statement for its “modernization” proposal with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and hopes that agency will soon begin the process that will lead to a decision to grant the permits required for construction of the new plant.

The dozen or more company employees and consultants gathered at Stuyvesant Town Hall last Thursday evening, September 16, exuded not only enthusiasm for the project but a sense of urgency, citing the need to begin construction on the plant soon. The timing is crucial, because in 2013, new federal air quality standards adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency will take effect, and the existing plant would need costly upgrades in order to meet them. The company, which expects it will take three years to build the new plant, would rather not have to retrofit the old plant at the same time it’s building the new one.

Pollutants emitted by the coal-burning plant have become a source of controversy in recent years, ever since a study revealed that based on the company’s own data the plant is one of the largest sources of airborne mercury in the state. Mercury is a toxic substance that can have a number of adverse impacts on human health and the environment. It is particularly harmful to children.

The state estimates the plant releases less mercury than it did before Lafarge bought the plant; the figure is now estimated at about 167 pounds per year, and last week the company received word that the DEC had renewed its current permit, allowing Lafarge to continue operating under the existing, less stringent emissions standards. Rick Georgeson, the regional DEC spokesman, said that the state permit is good for five years. But that won’t matter, because all cement plants are subject the new EPA rules, which take effect in 2013.

Mr. Georgeson said state officials are still reviewing the company’s draft environmental impact statement for “completeness,” though he said he expected the draft to be released for public comment and hearings sometime this fall.

The Ravena plant was built in 1962, and a public school was later built across the road on land donated by a previous owner of the plant. The question of whether the plant poses a health threat to students and the community arose most recently after the initial report identifying the plant as a major source of mercury. And since the prevailing winds often blow from the west, residents in Columbia and southern Rensselaer counties have wondered about the health impacts on people living downwind of the plant on this side of the river.

Susan Falzon, director of the group Friends of Hudson, said her organization has been following and commenting on the plant for several years, especially since the plant’s owner sought permission to burn recycled tires as fuel in addition to coal. Friends of Hudson is waiting for the release of the draft impact statement and is ready to have experts check the details of how the company will reduce the pollution. The group wants to be sure that there is “nothing behind the curtain that doesn’t match the rhetoric” of the company, she said.

But that’s not to say Friends of Hudson, which successfully led the fight to block the construction of a cement plant in Greenport and Hudson proposed by St. Lawrence Cement a decade ago, doesn’t see the benefit of a new plant in Ravena. “The sooner this dirty old plant is replaced the better for all of us,” Ms. Falzon said.

After local meetings and pressure from political leaders, the state placed a portable air quality monitoring station at Stuyvesant Town Hall. Mr. Georgeson of the DEC said that the early measurements taken by that station matched samples already being measured across the river nearer the plant, and because there was no funding available to continue the monitoring, the equipment was removed. The station was not equipped to test for mercury.

The new plant proposed by Lafarge would use a different, far more efficient process to make cement and would release much less mercury to produce the same amount of cement. The new technology proposed by the company would also reduce the production of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, which produce acid rain. And the plant would use less energy, capturing some of the leftover heat from the manufacturing process to make electricity used to run the facility.

But overall, the new plant would be capable of producing 50% more cement than the existing one, and increasing the volume of production would also increase the total amount of pollutants the plant would release. Still, Mr. Georgeson says there would be a net reduction in pollution, including mercury, even when the new plant operates at full capacity.

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