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Interesting bedfellows in Baker County

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Monday, June 01, 2009
ATSAshGroveCementThe state DEQ is defending the Ash Grove cement plant against EPA rules requiring emissions to be cut by 99%.
Photo courtesy of Ash Grove Cement
The Ash Grove cement plant in Baker County is the biggest source of airborne mercury in the country, churning out 900,000 tons of cement and emitting about 2,500 pounds of mercury every year. But when the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules last month that would cut the plant’s mercury emissions by 99%, Ash Grove had a surprising defender: Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Durkee limestone has an especially high elemental concentration of mercury that accounts for the plant’s higher emissions, says Linda Hayes-Gorman, an air quality specialist at DEQ. The company didn’t realize that when it built the plant in 1978, before mercury was widely considered hazardous. To make things right — and head off the inevitable emissions standards — Ash Grove willingly signed a legally binding agreement with DEQ in February 2008 requiring the plant to reduce emissions by 75% by 2012 or face fines.

“They came to us with the idea,” Hayes-Gorman says. “We were very pleased to work with them and it’s been one of the most satisfying experiences as a regulator to work with a company that voluntarily comes forward to reduce emissions in the absence of a law on the books.”

The company in March started building an activated carbon injection system to control mercury emissions with an expected price tag of between $15 million and $20 million.

Hayes-Gorman says DEQ will likely recommend to the EPA that the standards be more lenient or that the Durkee plant get an exception. Mike Hrizuk, a vice president of manufacturing at Ash Grove, says that complying with the proposed rules would be a challenge and could mean closing the plant, and Hayes-Gorman says it will be “extremely hard” for Ash Grove to comply.

“Ash Grove employs over 100 people at really good wage jobs, and there aren’t a lot of those in Baker County,” says county commissioner Fred Warner. The plant is one of the county’s largest employers, with 116 workers coming mostly from Baker City and Huntington. Warner says the plant is also a major local philanthropist.

But all the goodwill it’s cultivated may not save Ash Grove if the 99% reductions that EPA proposed come into law.

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