Look across the river

AT A DISTANCE it sounds like “déjà vu all over again,” a multi-national company proposes a big, new cement plant and citizens concerned about its impact line up to oppose the project.

Anyone who lived in Columbia County during the first half of the last decade will remember the epic legal and public relations battle that ended with St. Lawrence Cement throwing in the towel. The struggle caused rifts that still linger, defining people by which side you were on.

 

But a new confrontation over what the Lafarge North America cement company calls a Modernization of its plant in the Albany County community of Ravena has people on both sides agreeing that the status quo is a bad outcome. The question this time is whether the company will make good on its promise to install pollution mitigation equipment that one Lafarge employee, waxing ecstatic, called “the absolute best… system money can buy.”

Who cares about what happens in Ravena, a world away across the Hudson River? Anyone who’s ever stood on the banks of the Hudson looking west has probably felt the breeze in his or her face. That breeze doesn’t stop at the river’s edge. What goes up the smokestack at the Lafarge plant in Ravena often as not blows into Columbia County. And the worst pollution in terms of immediate threat to human health is mercury. Fetuses and children exposed to heavy burdens of mercury run a higher risk of developmental delays and other serious health problems.

A few years ago the Ravena plant was listed as one of the top two sources of airborne mercury in the state. Current measurements show lower levels of mercury, and while they’re still too high, it helps to have a little context for the mercury pollution problem.

New York has a comparatively good track record for controlling the local release of mercury from cement and power plants, the two biggest types of airborne mercury emitters. Compare that to Texas, where some power plants release 10 times the amount of mercury found here, not that anyone should use Texas as a yardstick for environmental sanity.

Current technology can radically reduce all sorts of smokestack pollution without bankrupting the polluter or the unsuspecting consumer, who usually gets stuck with the bill, anyway. The federal Environmental Protection Agency knows this and has imposed new, much more stringent air quality standards on cement plants scheduled to take effect in three years.

The new plant proposed by Lafarge would meet or exceed the new requirements, according to publicity released by the company. But the proof of whether the company’s commitment to deliver on its promise of a much cleaner-burning, coal-fired cement plant lies in the specifics of document now on file with the state. The plan is called a draft environmental impact statement, and it lays out the precise steps Lafarge plans to take to meet the new air quality standards

The state is broke, which threatens to compromise its ability to police the rules against polluting. And though it has voiced good intentions, Lafarge has an incentive to leave itself loopholes it can use in the future to weasel out of expensive promises. That’s legal, and after all, the company isn’t a charity.

But those factors do point to a significant role for a group like Friends of Hudson. So far it has taken the lead as a watchdog on plans involving the Ravena plant. There is also a citizens’ group in Albany County that organized in response to news about the plant and because a school sits directly across Route 9W from the plant. What distinguishes Friends of Hudson is its familiarity with the cement industry and with government regulators. There’s a lot to learn and not much time to learn it before the door shuts on the permit process, and construction starts on the new plant.

The most heartening thing about this situation is what looks like agreement in principle among all parties that a new plant will be better than the one there now. Exactly how much better depends on the details written into the company’s permit. The past success of Friends of Hudson in blocking St. Lawrence Cement should serve to remind Lafarge that it must do more than mouth what people want to hear about pollution mitigation; it must deliver. Yeah, sure, that’s what environmentalists always say. But in this case, it’s good business too.

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