Go Blow

Missouri gives cement giant Holcim a permit to pollute

Behind the closed garage doors at Loop Automotive on Delmar Boulevard, Gleb Gurevich points to the engine block beneath the raised hood of a white 1990 Cadillac Deville. He and another mechanic have been laboring over the Caddy since its owner brought it in two days ago, after the car failed the state's emissions test. Right now the mechanics are cleaning passages in the exhaust-gas recirculation valve, which should reduce output of nitrogen oxides from the tailpipe. When all the work is done, Gurevich reckons the bill will total $550.

No one's ever happy about shelling out the money for repairs. But it's required by the state, Gurevich explains. "It will reduce air pollution," he adds.

The Gateway Clean Air Program requires Missouri motorists to pay $24 every other year to have their vehicles tested for pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, which combine with volatile organic compounds and sunlight to form ground-level ozone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says ozone triggers chest pain, coughing and congestion and worsens bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. According to the American Lung Association of Eastern Missouri, 15 to 20 percent of St. Louis children suffer from asthma, compared to 6 percent nationwide.

The proposed Holcim plant,  as envisioned by the company
The proposed Holcim plant, as envisioned by the company

While motorists get stuck with bills of up to $1,500, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will not require a proposed cement plant in Ste. Genevieve County, 45 miles south of St. Louis, to install state-of-the-art pollution-control technology to block emissions of nitrogen oxides. The plant, owned by Switzerland-based Holcim Inc., will manufacture 4 million metric tons of cement annually, making it the largest producer in the United States. And although the state's own studies have found that the new facility likely will cause St. Louis to exceed federal ozone standards, the state DNR recently issued a draft of a permit that will allow Holcim to deploy less-effective pollution controls.

Besides cement and nitrogen oxides, Holcim will bring jobs, something Missouri is lacking these days. An estimated 430 people will be put to work building the plant, and 200 others will find permanent positions there.

On a crisp morning last October, Holcim spokeswoman Nancy Tully drove a Ford Explorer down a gravel road toward the planned site of the giant cement plant, near the banks of the Mississippi River. Limestone will be stripped from the surrounding bluffs, then ground and fed into a coal-fired kiln that will cook it at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. When coal is burned at such high temperatures, Tully explained, nitrogen oxides are formed.

"We are working with the Department of Natural Resources to use the best available control technology to make sure we run the plant in an environmentally friendly manner," Tully said.

But ever since Holcim applied for its air pollution permit in May 2000, it has locked horns with state air-quality officials over the prospect of investing in new technologies to reduce pollution. For nearly three years, in fact, Holcim refused to budge.

"They were not negotiating," says Kyra Moore, construction permit unit chief for the DNR's Air Pollution Control Program.

Meanwhile, since 2000 Holcim executives and the company's political action committee have pumped more than $60,000 into the war chests of Missouri candidates running for state and federal offices. Two-thirds of the contributions went to Democrats, including a March 2001 gift of $20,000 to the state Democratic Party. About $16,000 went to U.S. Representative and erstwhile presidential candidate Dick Gephardt.

Tully, who served as communications director for the state Democratic Party before joining the Holcim team in April 2003, scoffs at the idea that politics has played a role in decision-making. "There's no lobbying or negotiating," she asserts.

Initially the company (which changed its name from Holnam to Holcim in 2001) said the new plant would release 7,200 tons of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere each year using an "extremely efficient" multi-stage combustion system.

Two memos written by DNR staffers back in 2001 recommended denying the permit, predicting that wind would blow pollution toward St. Louis. "The impact of emissions from the Holnam-Lee Island plant on ozone air quality in the St. Louis area is significant," wrote Roger Randolph, the director of the DNR Air Pollution Control Program in March of that year.

The same month, Holcim submitted a company-funded report that came to the opposite conclusion. Nancy Tully points to another ozone-modeling study commissioned by the U.S. EPA, which found that "the overall impact of the Holnam facility on peak ozone impacts in the St. Louis area is seen to be very small."

At the outset, the company claimed a technology called selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR) -- which has been proven to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions by 35 percent by using ammonia to alter the molecular structure of nitrogen -- would be technically impossible to implement in Missouri. But students and professors from Washington U.'s Interdisciplinary Law Clinic, which was working with a consortium of local environmental groups to stop the Holcim project, cried foul. In an April 2003 letter to the state DNR, the clinic noted that in an air permit application for a proposed cement plant in New York, one of Holcim's very own subsidiaries called the SNCR process one of the "most stringent, feasible [nitrogen oxide] control technologies available for a cement kiln."

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