Volland said that the Chanute plant was the second largest emitter of mercury in Kansas in 2004, one of the years the mercury emissions reached 500 pounds. "That would compare to the 170 pounds of mercury a year at a major coal-fired power plant," Volland said.
Mercury travels great distances, persists in the environment and accumulates over time. EPA is so concerned about increasing mercury concentrations across the country that it has proposed tougher emission standards for coal-fired power plants and cement kilns. The agency wants a 92 percent reduction in mercury emissions at cement kilns alone.
"Mercury can damage children's developing brains," the EPA stated in an August, 2010, news release about the proposed cement-kiln standards. "Mercury in the air eventually deposits into water, where it changes into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish."
"In many freshwater lakes in the United States, we've already reached the threshold of harm of methylmercury in fish tissue," added Volland. "So any additional mercury that's emitted from any facility … has the potential to increase the health impact."
If enacted, the EPA's new mercury standards for cement kilns would not apply to kilns that burn hazardous waste because of the unique standards and regulatory process that govern each type of facility.
Ash Grove's mercury emissions worried the Galemores and others in Chanute, as did the seemingly permissive emissions standards for cement kilns burning hazardous waste. So they urged state and federal regulators to conduct independent testing of air, water, sediment, and fish.
"We have no other protection than you people," pleaded family patriarch and oil driller John Galemore during sometimes testy meetings. "You are our front line and our defense. And all we're asking is that you assure us with testing that we're safe."
State and federal regulators didn't embrace such concerns—and neither did some of the Galemores’ neighbors. When the family traveled to EPA's regional headquarters to discuss possible testing, Ash Grove supporters rallied employees, their families and company champions. A busload of people wearing the same "We are Chanute" T-shirts picketed and marched in front of the building while the Galemores and their allies met with regulators inside.
The protestors were eventually invited in to participate. Officials with the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) tried to explain the complex emissions standards and how they assure safety of people downwind. The standards are arcane and hard to understand, except perhaps by the small circle of regulatory officials, industry executives, and lobbyists, scientists, and lawyers fluent in the nuances. Those standards establish a complicated formula based on the precise mixture of hazardous wastes fed into the kiln, operating conditions of the kiln, emissions measurements during test burns, and computer modeling. The result is a prediction of expected exposure downwind of specific kinds of people in specific places.
As long as Ash Grove follows the formula, the regulators explained, the plant is deemed in compliance and considered safe.
But the standards allow more emissions of some toxics from kilns than from hazardous-waste incinerators. They permit what adds up to significant amounts of mercury—which the EPA is trying to come close to phasing out at cement kilns that do not burn hazardous waste. And the standards were based on what the cleanest plants achieved with existing technology—not on what might be desirable or even possible with new pollution-control methods.
The Galemores pointed out that the only real-time, independent monitoring of actual emissions in Chanute involved a single detector a couple of miles south of the plant on the roof of KDHE's regional office. It measures particulates, extremely tiny particles of dust, acids, organic chemicals, and metals that "affect the heart and lungs and can cause serious health effects" once inhaled, according to EPA. But it doesn’t pick up eight other toxic chemicals and gases that are meant to be kept under control at incinerators and kilns.
The monitor is not even in an ideal location for detecting particulates from Ash Grove. State environmental officials point out that its purpose was not intended to track emissions from Ash Grove. Because of the way winds tend to shift in the area, the monitor often won’t detect what’s released from the plant.
NPR asked EPA's Brooks to reconcile the plant's mercury emission levels with the agency's clearly stated—and well-publicized—goal of reducing mercury pollution at cement kilns and power plants. In his answer, Brooks focused only on the existing rules and did not acknowledge any conflict with EPA's strong desire to cut mercury emissions dramatically. "Every test that's been done, every inspection that's been done,” Brooks said, “verifies that there is full compliance with every relevant part of the permit. Including the mercury part.”
The Galemores persisted. They wanted independent testing and they didn't ease up on the pressure. State environmental officials responded at first by updating a regional health study prompted by community concerns after Ash Grove first received its first hazardous waste permit 15 years ago.
The review might have been reassuring; its analysis of cancer and hospital records found no excessive cancer rates in the region. But the Galemores said the study may have missed some cancers because some local people travel to distant hospitals in Wichita, Kansas City, and Houston for treatment.
The KDHE study did find a slightly higher than expected rate of asthma cases that required hospital visits. That fit pharmacist Nick Galemore's anecdotal experience.
"We see a high volume of nebulizer medication, inhalers, lots of lung issues here," especially for children, Galemore reports. "I believe there's something that's not being detected or not being looked into."