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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cement Factories Burn Hazardous Waste

Air Date: Week of

Lorna Jordan of member station WVXU reports on the growing national opposition to the practice of burning hazardous waste in cement kilns. Hazardous waste is used instead of coal to power more than a dozen cement factories nationwide. Opponents say it releases dangerous toxic compounds, including heavy metals, into the environment.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Disposal of hazardous waste is a nagging environmental problem. America generates millions of pounds of unwanted toxic material every day, but there's no safe and inexpensive way to get rid of it. Most of it ends up in high-tech dumps or incinerators. But in recent years, industry has quietly found another destination for toxic wastes: cement kilns. There, highly-flammable liquid wastes are used instead of coal to fire the kilns. The cement industry says it's safe, but increasingly, people are challenging the practice. From member station WVXU in Cincinnati, Lorna Jordan has this report.

(Sound of kiln in operation)

JORDAN: At this kiln in Fairborn, Ohio, limestone, iron, clay, and other materials are heated to make cement clinker. The fire which fuels this step in the cement manufacturing process is 3600 degrees. To produce that much heat, 12 tons of coal is fed into the kiln each hour. That translates to huge energy bills. As a way of reducing costs, this cement kiln and 19 other similar facilities are turning to liquid hazardous waste to replace fossil fuels. Industry representatives say they're burning paint thinner, cleaning solution and other chemicals approved by the EPA for this process. Environmentalists are concerned about emissions from the plants. Bruce Cornet is one of the leaders of the Greene Environmental Coalition, a neighborhood group trying to shut down the Fairborn plant. He says they have documentation which shows the plants are burning dangerous chemicals which can't always be identified.

CORNET: A lot of them are cancer-causing, a lot of them are unknown and untested. The one that's most notorious of course is dioxin.

JORDAN: Cornet says the kilns are also producing deadly heavy metals. Industry officials counter that they test each truckload of waste before it's burned to insure the safety of the process. Cement companies say they're recycling a product which no one else will take and which they say should not go to landfills. But Washington environment consultant Ed Kleppinger says the companies are definitely not recycling. He emphasizes that 100 percent of the residues from the incineration process enter the environment.

KLEPPINGER: And they enter the environment either in the cement that's used in our schools and our homes, they enter the environment in a product called cement kiln dust that is not very well regulated, or they go into the atmosphere. And that is not recycling. If I take heavy metals and I blow 'em out into the environment, that is not recycling. And the heavy metal levels that are going into the environment from cement production are fairly significant, about six percent of the total lead in the environment's coming from cement kilns, and it's higher than that for some of the other, more critical heavy metals like chromium and arsenic.

JORDAN: The plant in Fairborn is owned by Houston-based Southdown Corporation. It's currently prohibited from burning hazardous waste. Last summer the company was found in violation of emissions standards. But Southdown officials say they anticipate approval to begin burning hazardous waste again soon. Company officials say there were minor problems with emissions filters which have been corrected. Cement companies say they've conducted studies which show the burning of hazardous waste has minimal risks. Southdown Vice President Ed Marston feels it's so safe he'd live near a cement kiln.

MARSTON: We're satisfied that there's no undue risk to the people around the plants, to our workers, and we don't think that our product is infused with toxic materials. We have tests from the National Sanitary Foundation that confirm that that's the case. And so I think that while I would certainly insist on knowing an awful lot about a cement plant located next to me, there are a whole lot of other facilities I would prefer not to live next to, like a big freeway with a bunch of automobiles belching out benzene, and all kinds of total hydrocarbons, which we seem to live next to and don't worry about.

JORDAN: Southwestern Portland Cement has been in this town of 39,000 people, 14 miles east of Dayton, for 70 years. About twenty years ago, Southwestern was purchased by Southdown. Most residents of Fairborn viewed Southdown as a good neighbor, helping churches pave lots, providing for injured workers and supporting Little League teams. But neighbors like Dianne Jackson say all that's changed. She started getting sick five years ago.

JACKSON: I am a person who has what they call environmental illness. I have great chemical sensitivities, and I noticed that my health was declining when the incinerator was burning. I did not know what the cause of it was. We did not know there was hazardous waste being burned for five years until five years after it had been burned.

JORDAN: Greene Coalition members say there's a cancer cluster downwind of the plant. State Health Department officials say they haven't found a cluster, but they haven't been asked to investigate, either. Tracy Slaton is also a member of the Greene Coalition. He moved away from the kiln because so many people were becoming sick. And he doesn't believe the company studies which show it's safe living near the cement kiln.

SLATON: They do a risk assessment, so your chances are less than one in a million or less than one in 100,000 or whatever the numbers they'd like to crunch together to come up with their figures -- that's not good enough. There's people dying, and when people are dying there's something wrong. That many people don't die of cancer in that small of an area unless something's wrong.

JORDAN: No studies are currently available to show the correlation between the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns and any health effects. But the US EPA is examining any possible link. Initial results of that study may be released late this year. Matt Straus, the director of waste management at US EPA, says these kilns can help reduce the amount of wastes which go into landfills.

STRAUS: The bottom line is, is that you will need environmentally sound technologies, and again, hazardous waste combustion, whether it's in a cement kiln or a hazardous waste incinerator, if conducted in compliance with the rules, should be safe.

JORDAN: Regulation is in fact one of the major concerns of the opponents of hazardous waste incineration in cement kilns. They say EPA guidelines have left wide loopholes which are designed to help the cement industry continue to burn hazardous waste. EPA officials say there are no loopholes, but they continue to study the regulations for possible changes as their scientific knowledge of the issues increase. Advocates of hazardous waste incineration say it's the best available technology for getting rid of these chemicals. But opponents say the best way to conquer the problem is not to produce the waste in the first place. For Living on Earth, this is Lorna Jordan reporting.



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