Cement plant pollution leads to a fight in Chanute, Kansas

Permission To Pollute: Fighting Not Only a Local Cement Plant, but the EPA

Permission To Pollute: Fighting Not Only a Local Cement Plant, but the EPA

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Nov. 10 2011 7:23 AM

Permission To Pollute

A town on the Kansas prairie finds itself fighting not only a local cement plant, but the EPA.

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Aerial photo of Chanute cement kiln.
The Ash Grove cement plant has powerful economic ties to the city, as a large employer and electricity-consumer

Photograph by David Gilkey/NPR.

They initially focused on Ash Grove because of the company's relationship with the city, including a multimillion dollar tax abatement and an industrial revenue bond issued on the company's behalf. That led them to the plant's use of hazardous waste for fuel—and questions about whether it might be harmful to health.

They were nervous and excited about that meeting in October, where they hoped to find out how many neighbors shared their concerns.

The family raised $1,000 to fly in an expert—chemist Neil Carman, a former inspector for the Texas Air Control Board and an adviser to the Sierra Club. Carman has focused on cement kilns in Texas and had even submitted comments to regulators challenging Ash Grove's first hazardous waste permit in 1996.


The Galemores and Carman found the park pavilion teeming with dozens of people, filling most of the folding chairs and lining the room’s perimeter. Most were not there to listen. Their T-shirts read "We are Chanute" and "Real Families, Kansas Jobs." Some were Ash Grove employees and their families. Others were community supporters of the plant.

There was heckling when the Galemores or a few allies criticized Ash Grove and voiced concern for their health and the environment. Carman, intimidated by the jeering crowd, remained in his seat, silent.

Recalling that day, Selene Hummer’s smile morphed into hard lines. “We were outnumbered but we stood our ground."

That November, an election campaign involving one of the Galemore brothers grew bitter. His opponents merged the political issues and the environmental effort. Ads and letters in The Chanute Tribune accused the family of trying to shut down the plant. The Galemores were labeled "the Chanute al-Qaida" and the family said there were boycotts of every Galemore business. Even friends started to shun them, the Galemores said.

Elsie Galemore, the family matriarch, said she never felt unsafe in Chanute until the day after the meeting, when threatening letters overflowed the family’s mailbox, and spilled into the yard.

The Galemores blame that fierce reaction on the powerful links between the city and the company. In addition to its $7.4 million annual payroll, Ash Grove's charitable foundation contributed $1 million to the new sports complex at Chanute High School. The company is the single biggest customer for the city's municipally-owned power company, paying $14 million a year in electric bills.

"They've really been a strong pillar in the community for many, many years," said Chanute city manager J.D. Lester. "They pay a very good wage … and they've been a very good corporate citizen.“ When asked if he thinks Chanute is polluted, Lester answered with a flat "no." "If I truly felt like it was unhealthy to live in Chanute and an industry was making problems," Lester said, "I'd do something about it because that's my job."

"I do not have a high level of concern because I trust that the regulators … do their job effectively," Lester added. "And I just don't, at this time, feel like that threat exists."


The use of cement kilns to burn hazardous waste dates back to the days of waste-dumping disasters such as Love Canal in New York and Times Beach in Missouri in the 1970s and 1980s. Burial of hazardous waste was abandoned and incineration was the only alternative. Specially designed incinerators took time to build, and cement kilns already operated at the kind of heat—3,000 degrees—needed to destroy hazardous materials. Meanwhile, the industry could replace expensive oil and coal by using the hazardous waste as fuel. And firms generating hazardous waste would pay the cement companies to take the waste, transforming fuel costs into revenues.

By the 1980s, hazardous waste was used for fuel at the rate of 1 million tons a year, according to the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition. The practice was largely unregulated at first; Ash Grove's Chanute kiln became the first in the country to receive a hazardous-waste permit, in 1996. Today, a dozen cement plants in eight states have 16 kilns burning hazardous waste. Then and now, the industry and the EPA refer to the process as recycling—because cement kilns and other industrial facilities "recover" the energy value in the waste when it's burned.

Pollutants include metals such as mercury and lead, which either vaporize or escape as particulate matter, and carbon compounds that are incompletely burned. In the atmosphere such pollutants create new compounds like dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This “highly toxic cocktail,” as chemist Neil Carman puts it, contains “some of the most dangerous substances that we produce.”

Amid the new demand for hazardous waste disposal, Congress carved out regulations for specific types of facilities so that hazardous-waste incinerators and cement kilns burning hazardous waste would each have their own emissions standards. The industries argued that the facilities have different purposes and operating conditions and shouldn't be regulated identically. Kilns are far larger than incinerators and produce cement as a product. Hazardous-waste incinerators just incinerate.

But the decision to regulate the two types of facilities differently is “a loophole for the cement industry," said James Pew, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice. "The problem with cement kilns that burn hazardous waste is that they're not designed to burn hazardous waste."

Some environmental groups and people in Chanute are concerned that the differences in regulation mean emissions from Ash Grove’s cement kiln can drift over the community, with consequences for health that range from respiratory and skin problems to special issues of exposure for children.

The mercury emissions from the Chanute kiln are especially troublesome to environmental consultant Craig Volland, who advises the Kansas Sierra Club on air-pollution issues and also helps the Galemores navigate state and federal regulations and records.