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.

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."

In fact, this past July the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation required Holcim's subsidiary, St. Lawrence Cement, to go even further, asking the company to research the possibility of using a related but more advanced technology known as selective catalytic reduction (SCR). According to a 1997 report by the European Cement Association, nitrogen oxide emissions could be cut by as much as 95 percent with SCR, a method that is being used in power plants across the United States. Jon Knodel, who works at the U.S. EPA's Kansas City air-quality office, says a cement company in Germany recently published a report that "documents successful implementation of SCR on its operations for a period of over two years."

The sticking point: SCR technology, though it has been widely available in Europe since the late 1990s, costs about three times more than SNCR to install, according to a December 2001 report on pollution technology prepared for the European Union.

In October, at the urging of local environmental groups, state officials asked Holcim to consider using SCR. Holcim responded in mid-December, maintaining it has been unable to find a supplier for the equipment it would need to implement the technology in Missouri.

In New York, Michael Higgins, a deputy administrator for environmental permits, says his staff has begun reviewing the documentation Holcim submitted to his office. Higgins says his agency is not ready to make a recommendation, and will not do so until his staff has evaluated all the material and conferred with local environmental groups, which are also poring over the documents.

Meanwhile, on January 8, a mere eleven working days after receiving from Holcim two large binders filled with information about SCR, the Missouri DNR had concluded it would not require Holcim to use SCR here. "They have had a lot of trouble finding vendors who will sell them equipment," Kyra Moore says. "Most likely, that is the stance we will support.

"We feel they've spent enough time reviewing it," she adds.

Indeed, the draft permit, released January 23, makes no mention of SCR. Rather, the permit will require Holcim to use SNCR, and only on a test basis. Under the permit's provisions, Holcim will not be required to hit the state's emissions targets during the plant's first two years of operation. Despite the fact that the technology is currently in use at eighteen cement plants in Europe and will be employed at another cement plant in Missouri, the state permit deems SNCR an "innovative control technology."

"It's like a pilot program," Moore elaborates. "They have to try to get as much efficiency out of the control as possible."

Holcim officials have already predicted the technology will fail when used on the company's ultramodern equipment. They anticipate that a plume of ammonia will be visible above the kiln's stack -- a violation of federal guidelines.

In a letter to the state last year, the Washington U. law clinic criticized the notion of a pilot program, arguing that Holcim "controls the success or failure of the test" and that "Holcim's lack of commitment to using SNCR establishes the fate of the testing protocol before it even begins."

Moore acknowledges that even if Holcim were to successfully deploy SNCR, some air-quality models indicate that emissions would push St. Louis ozone levels beyond federal caps, which are about to become more stringent. What are the consequences for exceeding the new ozone limit? The rules are still being written, but EPA officials say it's a safe bet that vehicles in St. Louis will continue to be tested to make sure their emissions are within the legal limits. That's good news for Gleb Gurevich at Loop Automotive, and bad news for drivers of 1990 Caddies.

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