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 Downwinders At Risk - Articles: August 2006

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Kilns Being Pressed to Cut Emissions

Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006
Kilns being pressed to cut emissions

From a remote site in the heart of Bavaria, in southern Germany, the modest Solnhofen cement plant is a model for reducing pollution.

Once a dirty industrial facility, the plant has dramatically slashed lung-scarring emissions with a cutting-edge technology that converts pollutants into water vapor.

The technology’s success in Germany, however, has placed the Solnhofen plant at the center of an increasingly contentious debate in Texas over whether cement kilns in Ellis County — long a target of local clean-air advocates — should follow their German counterparts’ lead.

The outcome could have serious implications for local residents, who face the possibility of severe driving restrictions if air pollution cannot be reduced in other ways. The decision will rest with state and federal environmental regulators.

But a growing number of cement kiln experts and engineers say installing the new pollution control technology at the three Midlothian kilns should be part of any plan to bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with federal ozone standards by a 2010 deadline.

“As far as I can see, there is not a technical reason that it will not work,” said Al Armendariz, a chemical engineer at Southern Methodist University who is advising local clean-air advocates on pollution control alternatives.

The technology could cost tens of millions of dollars to install. And industry officials say that it’s still unproven for use in cement kilns and that there are differences between the local and German kilns that may prevent the pollution controls from working.

“I think there is a basic disagreement about whether this will work in Texas,” said Al Axe, an Austin lawyer representing the Portland Cement Association, the national trade group of cement kiln operators.

The debate has been going on behind the scenes, overshadowed by the controversy surrounding 17 proposed power plants and whether they will hurt Dallas-Fort Worth air quality.

Studies show that installing the pollution controls in the cement kilns would improve air quality in Fort Worth and Arlington.

Regional and state leaders have discussed restricting driving to every other day and banning drive-through windows during ozone season as part of a federally mandated plan now being drafted that will outline steps the region must take to meet the ozone standards.

The less regulators require of major industrial polluters like cement kilns, the more will get passed to motorists and other businesses, officials say.

“If we talk to people about changing their behavior in the way that they conduct their daily lives, they’re rightfully going to want to know if we have gotten the maximum reductions from industry sources,” said Richard Greene, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator.

“We have to be able to say yes to that.”

Meeting the standard

For years, the Solnhofen cement plant belched out thousands of tons of smog-forming pollutants over a tree-shrouded valley.

The plant, in the Altmuhltal Nature Park, about 50 miles southwest of Nuremburg, was not even equipped to control ozone-forming pollutants when German regulators began to crack down on the industry. In 2001, Solnhofen plant operators decided to roll the dice on a pollution control system that could virtually eliminate ozone-forming emissions.

Selective catalytic reduction chemically alters pollutants into harmless nitrogen gas and water vapor. It had been used for years at power plants, waste incinerators and other industries but never at a cement plant. No one was sure it would work.

But it did, consistently slashing ozone-forming emissions by nearly 70 percent, German regulators reported.

“We proved the applicability of this technology in the cement industry,” said Sebastian Plickert, a cement industry specialist with the German Federal Environmental Agency.

It should work in Midlothian, too, according to a state study by a group of cement kiln experts that said the system could cut smog-forming pollutants at local kilns by as much as 85 percent. The technology, they reported, is available, affordable and “must be seriously considered.”

That was good news to some Ellis County residents and regional leaders who have long complained about cement kiln pollution.

The three kilns — TXI Operations, Holcim and Ash Grove Cement — are the region’s largest industrial source of nitrogen oxides, the chief man-made component of ozone.

The nine-county region needs to cut an estimated 166 tons a day of nitrogen oxide emissions. Installing the pollution controls could slash as much as 20 tons per day of the ozone-forming pollutant, according to studies.

“I don’t want to create the impression that the cement plants have the power with their operations to solve the [ozone] problem, because they don’t,” Greene said. “But for our assignment here in North Texas, we have to get 166 tons of reduction and right now we don’t have 166 tons of reductions.”

Past efforts to increase kiln restrictions have met stiff resistance, mainly from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barton, whose committee has legislative oversight of the EPA, thinks regulators need to look elsewhere.

“There has been a big whoop-tee-do about the cement plants here in Midlothian, that we ought to shut them down,” Barton told the Midlothian Chamber of Commerce this month.

“You could shut them all down and you wouldn’t decrease the ozone one-tenth of 1 percent,” he said.

The studies, however, indicate that reductions could be as high as 12 percent of the total needed to reach compliance.

Industry fights back

In May, a group of cement industry representatives and their consultants traveled to Germany to check out the Solnhofen plant.

But at the time of the visit, the plant was not using the system. It was testing a different technology that the plant operators are considering as a backup. The system remains off-line, though German officials say it will soon go back into use.

The industry representatives wrote an unflattering report and submitted it in June to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Among other things, they reported that the less expensive pollution control system being tested as a backup at the kiln was working just as well. German regulators disagree, saying that if regulations required it to, the selective catalytic reduction system could easily reduce pollution to a greater extent than it does.

The American cement industry officials also raised concerns about reliability. The system at Solnhofen was found to have worked only 72 percent of the time in 2004 and 92 percent of the time in 2005, said Bob Schreiber, a St. Louis-based chemical engineer and the lead consultant for the cement industry trade association.

“That doesn’t work in the U.S.,” he said.

German officials were not pleased. They said the U.S. industry representatives misled the plant manager, Gerd Sauter, who does not speak English.

“Mr. Sauter was really upset” with the report, said Plickert, the German cement kiln regulator. “He had simply told them the facts and showed them the plant, and they didn’t tell him what they really were about to do.”

The cement industry wants to install the cheaper pollution control system, which is similar to selective catalytic reduction in that it chemically alters emissions. But the EPA says the alternative system would curb ozone-forming pollution only about one-third as much as the costlier system.
One local kiln is already reporting success with the alternative, however.

Holcim installed the cheaper system at its Midlothian kiln this year in settling a legal challenge from environmental groups that were fighting the company’s efforts to increase emissions.

The system came on line in April and halved emissions of nitrogen oxides, said Nick Tzourtzouklis, the environmental manager at Holcim’s Midlothian kiln.

“It’s been a definite success,” he said.

TXI and Ash Grove are making moves to test that technology at their plants this year, according to the companies’ officials.

If it works, “we will make it permanent,” Grove said in a statement. Looking ahead
For now, the state continues to draft its plan for meeting the federal ozone standards, with restrictions on residents and businesses still up in the air. That plan will eventually be forwarded to the EPA for final approval.

“I think we’ve definitely got the cement kilns recognizing the fact that they’re going to have to do something,” said Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, co-chairwoman of a group of local leaders, advocates and industry representatives studying cement kiln pollution.

Greene wants to see selective catalytic reduction tested at the local kilns. And if it works, he said, “we need to encourage them to use that technology and come up with some reasonable time frame to put it into place.”

But it doesn’t appear likely.

State regulators have not even talked to the cement industry about a pilot study, said David Schanbacher, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s chief engineer.

“I’m not ruling it out,” he said, “but it’s not where we are right now.”

Ground-level ozone

The federal government regulates ozone levels as a health concern.

At high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children, and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.

Ozone — the main ingredient in smog — needs lots of sunlight and heat to form. For that reason, ozone season in Dallas-Fort Worth runs from May 1 through October.

Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds. The nitrogen oxides and organic compounds come mostly from automobile exhaust and industry smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency

Scott Streater, 817-390-7657