A mercury loophole the size of a cement plant

A mercury loophole the size of a cement plant

By Chris Grubb, with contributions from Bill Freese, Huron Environmental Activist League

An environmental struggle in northeast Michigan involving grassroots activists, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and a local cement manufacturer has illuminated a disturbing fact for many in that community and around Michigan: mercury emissions from cement plants – which can be on par with emissions from coal-fired power plants – are virtually unregulated by state and federal clean air agencies.

Alpena, Michigan is located on Thunder Bay of Lake Huron. Growing up, I always thought of Alpena as that place my friends went to play in a big hockey tournament every year. It’s not all hockey pucks and ice fishing, though, according to Bill Freese, a resident of Alpena and director of the Huron Environmental Activist League (HEAL). Alpena is home to the Lafarge North America cement plant: the largest cement plant on the continent. That was their claim to fame. What they have now is nothing to brag about.

A Freedom of Information Act request from the state shows that of four criteria pollutants, SO2, NOx, PM10 and VOCs, the City of Alpena has a higher level of the first three than the City of Detroit. But recently, Freese and HEAL have been focused on the mercury emissions from the facility.

Last year, state regulators learned the cement plant emits up to 580 pounds of mercury per year – about 10 times higher than previously believed. For comparison’s sake, the state’s largest coal fired power plant generates emissions of around 600 pounds of mercury per year, and the total mercury emissions from utilities around the state is about 2,500 pounds per year (i.e. Lafarge would make up about 1/5 of the overall). When the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) tried to issue a permit that would limit the facility’s emissions to 390 pounds per year the matter wound up in the Circuit Court for the County of Alpena. The court found the MDEQ’s decision to limit Lafarge’s mercury emissions to 390 pounds per year to be arbitrary, capricious, and unauthorized by law.The court said MDEQ exceeded its authority because the state has no specific regulations dealing with mercury emissions from cement plants.

Likewise, even after two court rulings instructing it to do so, the EPA has not set nationwide limits on mercury from cement plants. That may change soon. After demands from grassroots activists, legal action by groups like Earthjustice, and prodding from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the EPA is reconsidering its position and will announce a decision in December.

Lafarge has pledged voluntary cutbacks and the MDEQ has created a taskforce with representation from government, environmental groups, and industry to create mercury emissions rules for the industry. But it’s unclear what kind of cutbacks Lafarge is willing to undertake and how aggressively the state will work toward developing those regulations. An obvious cutback that Lafarge could make is to replace the fly ash it currently adds to other raw materials for cement production with less mercury-contaminated fly ash. The current fly ash, from a Canadian coal burning power plant, produces over half the total emissions while representing only five percent of the raw materials by volume.

Meanwhile there are warnings to limit fish consumption because of mercury contamination in all of the state’s inland waterways, including lakes and streams near Alpena. What’s more, according to a recent Associated Press article, “96 percent of the plant’s mercury is the type that tends to settle close to home and accumulate in fish…”

It’s important for state and federal agencies, as well as elected officials, to hear from grassroots advocates on this issue. Clearly, mercury emissions from cement plants can have the same damaging effects as mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Michigan regulators have stepped up to the plate by going beyond the federal mercury regulations for coal-fired power plants. They should follow their own lead and take bold action to drastically reduce mercury emissions from cement plants too.


Visit http://www.earthjustice.org/our_work/campaigns/ cement-kilns.html

for more info on cement plant mercury emissions.

For more information: Chris Grubb,

National Wildlife Federation

PH: 734-769-3351 • FX: 734-769-1449 E-mail: grubbc@nwf.org


Stay Informed

Connect With us


© 2021 Freshwater Future. All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.