This is the tale of two cement kilns just miles from the Redbud Valley Nature Preserve. Since 1961, the kilns and its smokestacks at the Tulsa Cement Plant have puffed and wheezed out thousands of pounds of toxic substances into the air each year.
Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter sound a little like common household ingredients on the side of a soup can label. Instead, they are some of the integral compounds that create the chemical soup called ozone -- Tulsa's biggest air problem.
Lafarge North America, a French industrial company and third-largest Portland cement manufacturer in the world, owns and operates the kilns near 145th E. Ave. and Apache St.
Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency charged Lafarge with violations of the Clean Air Act. The United States, 13 state entities (including Oklahoma) and Lafarge reached a groundbreaking "system-wide" settlement that will cost the manufacturing giant up to $170 million in new technologies, more stringent controls and civil penalties.
In this smoggy gray area where air is measured in pounds and toxic materials are measured in parts per billion, Lafarge and other manufacturing industries are struggling to meet tighter EPA regulations.
Air has an algebraic and mysterious nature; we can't see it, but we require it. Air moves things around -- toxins, smells, water -- with invisible hands. And air is almost impossible to quantify.
"Anything with air is hard for the public to understand," said Nancy Graham, air quality manager for INCOG.
"It's hard to translate because you can't see it, and it blows around and is hard to get a handle on," Graham said.
But where there's smoke, there's fire. Where there's Portland cement manufacturing, there are nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter dispersed into the air. It's as simple and as complex as that.
Here's the Smoke
Last year, in a consent decree filed in federal court, Lafarge agreed to "install and implement new controls," which would cost the company up to $170 million, according to a 2010 EPA news release.
In the same decree, Lafarge and two of its subsidiaries also agreed to reduce harmful emissions by more than 35,000 tons per year at their cement plants.
Within 30 days, Lafarge was required to wire $3,383,000 to the United States, and to write out big checks to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (OKDEQ) and the 12 other states, totaling $1.7 million.
The monies were to "resolve alleged allegations" of the Clean Air Act's new source review regulations," according to the government news release.
The United States alleged that Lafarge did not receive pre-construction permits for alterations to its facilities, and then failed to install required pollution control equipment. The violations were discovered in part through "company submitted data," or self-reporting.
OKDEQ received a check for $55,250 (plus interest). The Lafarge settlement (along with a similar suit-n-settlement against Saint-Gobain Containers) was one of the first attempts to aggressively enforce Clean Air Act standards through "system-wide settlements."
These new system-wide suits require pollution control upgrades, acceptance of enforceable emission limits and payment of civil penalties by industries that emit large amounts of air pollution.
The biggest offenders are Portland cement manufacturing, glass manufacturing, acid production and coal-fired power.
Each year, it seems, the EPA incrementally tightens standards. Last year, the agency strengthened air quality regulations for nitrogen oxides.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
By 2014, Lafarge must reduce its nationwide emissions of nitrogen oxides by more than 9,900 tons per year, and of sulfur dioxide by more than 26,000 tons annually.
Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are just two of the 187 air pollutants regulated by the EPA. They are also two of six primary air pollutants, known as "criteria pollutants."
These also include ozone, lead, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.
INCOG's Graham said Oklahoma is "meeting all of the federal general air requirements (for the six "criteria pollutants) that the EPA has set for Metro areas and states."
Additionally, overall ambient concentrations of nitrogen oxides have decreased by more than 40 percent since 1980, according to EPA figures.
The problem lies in location. The closer you are to major roadways or to polluting facilities, the worse the exposure may be (though even rural areas are susceptible to pollutants carried on the wind).
After short-term elevated exposures (ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours), the government warns of nitrogen oxides' "respiratory effects" like airway inflammation or increased asthma attacks. An EPA study also showed a connection between breathing elevated short-term nitrogen oxides' concentrations, and increased visits to ERs and hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially asthma.
Nitrogen oxides also play a pivotal role in creating ozone, Tulsa's biggest air quality issue. The substances also help create acid rain and other toxic compounds, push along climate change and deteriorate water quality.
Lafarge's other main pollutant is sulfur dioxide, a group of highly reactive gasses, which can cause respiratory problems, aggravate asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, and cause bumps in ER visits and hospitalizations.
Lafarge was slapped for "non-containment" or exceeding air regulations. How old are the regulations anyway? The EPA set air standards for sulfur dioxide in 1971, and the regulations (despite a few attempts) have remained virtually unchanged for 40 years.
Since 1980, the annual average ambient concentrations of sulfur dioxide have decreased by 70 percent, according to the EPA. Overall, the U.S. meets ambient air regulations for sulfur dioxide, except a few monitoring sites near Hawaiian volcanoes.
Lafarge, and other air polluting industries, often have up-to-date permits. OKDEQ issues permits to manufacturers across the state, which allows them to pollute -- but only so much.
OKDEQ is also responsible for conducting "surprise inspections and any kind of enforcement," Graham said. However, industries most often "self-report" on their own emissions, where big manufacturers are supposed to pollute and report using the honor system.
OKDEQ and the State of Oklahoma issue permits to manufacturing companies, which do allow for a certain amount of toxic waste to be released into the environment. Permits don't mean that a company isn't polluting at all; a permit just limits the amount of pollution to stay within state and federal guidelines.
And Here Are the Mirrors
Since the consent decree filing last year, Lafarge's Tulsa operations have waded thigh-deep into air-friendly community involvement to bandage a blackened reputation. Lafarge cement has been used locally in the construction of the BOK Center, turnpikes, medical centers and landmarks.
The Tulsa Cement Plant generates about $106 million within the state in payroll, taxes and business annually, according to Tulsa Metro Chamber figures. Locally, Lafarge employs more than 100 people.
To cover all their public relations bases, Lafarge's Tulsa plant boasts proud sponsorship of Tulsa Transit's 50 Cent Fridays and Ozone Alert Program, of the Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma and local Chambers of Commerce. The plant also funded a rocks and minerals program for fifth-graders.
"Our goals are to use energy and natural resources more efficiently, while seeking ways to preserve heritage, landscape and biodiversity," according to the Tulsa plant's website.
The Tulsa Cement Plant manager is James Bachmann, brought in from another Lafarge facility in Alpena, Mich., to manage Tulsa's kilns in 2008. He currently serves on the city of Tulsa's refuse and recycling task force.
In the consent decree, Lafarge agreed to implement new technologies (jargon-filled technical stuff we won't delve into here) and to install continuous emission monitoring systems at each smokestack, including the two kilns in Tulsa.
The Tulsa plant submitted updated data to the EPA about whether or not it could limit its sulfur dioxide emissions. To control nitrogen oxides, Lafarge was required to outfit the two Tulsa kilns with another new technology by Dec. 1.
A Great Balancing Act
The idea of breathing dirty air is about as appetizing as the idea of spending more money. Cleaning up our air is calculated in terms of jobs, money and production lost. Tightening air standards comes with hefty price tags, new tech and more stringent monitoring.
"We don't want to close down all plants and things in all industries," Graham said. "We'd have an economic crash...
"It's a balancing act."
In an Aug. 2010 regulatory impact analysis, the EPA outlined costs and benefits for more stringent emission standards for the Portland cement manufacturing industry. These standards would doubtless affect the Tulsa Cement Plant, which produces tons of Portland cement each year.
The EPA estimated that revisions to its emission limits for various toxic substances from Portland cement plants would cost $466 million annually (in 2005 dollars). The EPA's market analysis showed "the average national price for Portland cement could be 5 percent higher with the stricter standards (an added cost of $4.50 per metric ton), while annual domestic production may fall by 11 percent or 10 million tons," according to the report.
But dollars and cents only go so far, especially when it comes to something as elusive and insubstantial as air. The EPA analysis attempted to translate social, health and societal well-being into dollar signs, but it's to hang a price tag on air.
The Twilight Ozone
The Lafarge case was a big, splashy national settlement that focused on one air-polluting industry, Portland cement manufacturing. In general, said Graham, Tulsa's air "is generally and most of the time fully in compliance" with national standards.
"Over the long haul," she said, Tulsa's emissions "are all getting cleaner." However, "The one that keeps challenging us is ozone. We've been struggling."
While Graham said Tulsa's ozone levels are improving steadily, the EPA has tightened its ozone regulations more quickly than Tulsa can keep up with.
Though Tulsa's ozone levels change every day, our long, hot summers (especially this past one), boosts our yearly averages and keeps us teetering on the edge of the dreaded Dirty Air List. However, since the economic downturn in 2008, President Barack Obama abandoned plans for even stricter ozone standards.
For the past three years (2008-2010), the Tulsa area maintained an average of .075, the max allowed for ozone. To stay out of trouble and off any naughty lists, Tulsa must maintain that number, though it appears that the average for 2011 may wind up just over the edge at .077.
Ozone forms when nitrogen oxides and other volatile organic compounds react to heat and sunlight, which is why our ozone levels skyrocket in the summertime and die down in the winter. High ozone levels can cause reduced lung function and respiratory distress.
You can monitor the air quality index of your city every day through airnow.gov. The EPA tracks our air quality through monitors in Lawton, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
High Priority Violators
Industries and environmental groups wage a contentious give and take between production costs and profits weighed against health concerns and long-term effects.
The EPA recently created a new mapping tool to make its records more readily accessible to the public. Now see if there are any high priority violators (HPVs) in your neighborhood.
A high priority violator is a business that may be in danger of exceeding regulations in the Clean Air Act, and could possibly face charges, similar to those alleged against Lafarge.
The EPA site offers a look into reports submitted by manufacturers for the years 2001 through 2009. The reports include Tulsa operations that are self-reporting, in government doublespeak, their "releases" and "transfers" of hazardous chemicals into our land, air and water -- most of the time, with legal permits.
The new EPA mapping tool supports a White House initiative to add transparency to a smoky-vague subject. Now, everyone can access a map (updated monthly) of EPA and state enforcement actions taken to address violations of air, water and waste laws.
Check out businesses near you at epa-echo.gov.
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