By Colby Itkowitz, The Morning Call
WASHINGTON — During last week's debt tug-of-war, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey called on the Environmental Protection Agency to delay its regulation of the cement industry.
Dent, R-15th District, added his name to legislation delaying the air pollution rule by a few years. Toomey, R-Pa., sent a letter to Senate leaders asking for the same.
Both said the regulations threaten to reduce by 20 percent the capacity of the domestic cement industry even as plants are struggling due to the slow-to-recover economy.
In a statement, Toomey said: "If Congress does not act, the new regulations may impact almost 2,000 workers in 11 different cement plants across Pennsylvania, with seven of these plants located in the Allentown area alone."
But environmentalists say the cement industry has had sufficient notice — the regulations of emissions from the plants have been in the works for 13 years.
"Cement plants are a huge source of man-made mercury pollution and other toxic pollution in the U.S," said Emily Davis, a staff attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. "Cleaning up toxic air pollution after many years of delay will have huge health benefits for the American public."
She said the pollution controls are estimated to save as many as 2,500 lives a year, as well as stave off lung disease and brain damage that can be caused by polluted air. The benefits, she said, outweigh the costs.
The rule went into effect in August 2010, and cement companies have three years to comply.
It's the first time the federal government has restricted mercury emissions from existing cement kilns. The regulations aim to reduce, by 2013, the annual emissions of mercury and particulate matter by 92 percent, hydrochloric acid by 97 percent and sulfur dioxide by 78 percent.
Dent and other lawmakers want the EPA to put off the air pollution rule for five more years to give the industry time to recover. The industry has warned of plant closures and job outsourcing if forced to comply when cement demand is so low.
Andy O'Hare, vice president of regulatory affairs at Portland Cement Association, said it would cost $3.4 billion across the nation's 100 cement plants. Since 2007, plants have been running well below capacity, he said, estimating at least 18 plants will close at some point before 2013 because they can't comply.
Rocco Marinaro, manager of compliance at Keystone Cement in East Allen Township, said it would be prohibitively expensive to purchase the necessary control technology and monitoring equipment. "It's obviously easier to come into compliance in good economic times," Marinaro said. "The regulations are challenging and the timeline is very aggressive."
Tom Chizmadia, senior vice president of government affairs at Lehigh Hanson, parent company of Lehigh Cement, which has a plant in Maidencreek Township, Berks County, was in Washington this week meeting with congressional staffs about the legislation to delay the rule.
Chizmadia said his company is willing to comply with the standards, but that stretching out the deadline could hopefully mean they'd be implemented in a better economic situation.
"We don't want to emit these [pollutants], believe me. We've made progress," he said, adding later, "Although it is a delay, and we're sorry to have to delay it, it will buy us more time. It will allow the industry and economy to recover."