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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Chanute cement kiln.
Ash Grove Cement has been operating in Chanute, Kan. for over a century, but received a permit to burn hazardous waste only in 1996

Photograph by David Gilkey/NPR.

In a separate study in 2006, the Kansas environmental agency found an elevated level of mercury in a fish sample taken in the creek that runs right past the plant.

This summer, the agencies finally agreed to begin testing air, water, sediment, and fish in the Chanute area. The community is awaiting results, but the Galemores and others remain skeptical. They worry that a misplace­­­d monitor or misinterpreted sample will jeopardize the accuracy of the effort. And they’re bothered by a perceived coziness between Ash Grove and state regulators.

Ash Grove vice president Lesslie was once a state regulator himself. In fact, he was the state official who drafted the company's first hazardous waste permit in 1996. Lesslie later worked elsewhere for seven years, with a consulting firm, before joining Ash Grove in 2007.


NPR also discovered in state records a recent email exchange involving Lesslie and William Bider, the Kansas director of waste management. In August of last year, when EPA announced its proposed new emissions standards for cement kilns, Bider sent the EPA news release to Lesslie for his analysis.

Lesslie responded, noting "extreme impacts on the industry."

There’s nothing unusual about a regulator seeking comment from a potentially affected company. But Bider wrote another email to two colleagues, including one heavily involved in Ash Grove matters, according to other agency emails and documents reviewed by NPR.

"I thought you might be interested in reading this note from Curtis Lesslie in response to another major EPA air rule that will help put our cement plants out of business or at a minimum result in severe inflation," Bider wrote. "EPA is out of control as far as I'm concerned."

Such emails don’t surprise environmental consultant Craig Volland. "I think it's crossing the line a bit for a manager in KDHE to take the position that this is not what [EPA] should be doing," Volland maintained. "That said, KDHE is always under enormous pressure from the politicians in Kansas, who are very conservative. … [Regulators are] always being pressured to be accommodating to the industries that they regulate."

John Mitchell, Bider’s boss as director of the environment division at KDHE, was not happy about the email when it was provided by NPR, but he did not seem alarmed.

"It disappoints me to see our staff putting something like that in writing," Mitchell said. “It appears to me that Bill has indicated that this is his personal opinion but our position certainly is that if changes come down the pike, we will consider those … as we regulate the businesses in Kansas. I have no doubt in my mind.”

NPR then asked Mitchell why concerned people in Chanute would trust KDHE enforcement if a key state regulator is so openly critical of EPA, the state agency’s enforcement partner.

"We don't always see eye-to-eye on everything," Mitchell responded, in describing the KDHE relationship with EPA. "I don't know what else I can really say on that front."

All EPA's Karl Brooks would say about the email is that "KDHE has held up its end of that partnership bargain."

Brooks also predicted that the new testing in Chanute will allay fears in the community.

"You'd like to make sure that everybody affected by emissions from a permitted facility understands what's being emitted and has some confidence that the permit is doing what it's designed to do," Brooks says. "That would be the hope, that the evidence that's supplied to people will give them that confidence."

State regulators also doubt the new testing will justify the concern and pressure they're getting from the Galemores and others in Chanute.

“We’ve done far more here in Chanute to investigate the concerns that these folks have had than we typically do based upon the lack of concrete documentation that there’s an existing problem,” Mitchell says. "If we really don't find some sound scientific basis to delve deeper, it's very hard for us to do more."


Back in Chanute, the Galemores focus on the rail cars of hazardous waste that roll right through Chanute's quaint, red-brick downtown on the way to the plant. They show visitors plastic bags filled with rusted, palm-sized flakes collected from their yards. They point to fine white dust on their pickups and black soot on their homes. And they tick off a misery list of illnesses, wondering whether it's all connected to Ash Grove's cement kiln and the hazardous waste it uses for fuel.

“They’ll never be satisfied with any answer,” said David Orr, who challenged one of theGalemore brothers in a county commison election. Orr had 300 of the “We are Chanute” T-shirts printed for the first meeting at the park.* “When I saw the flyer for the meeting, I decided to do something,” he said. “They tore this town apart, [and] somebody had to stand up to them.”

Despite their determination, the Galemores show signs of weariness. "It is not good for somebody to continually be battling, and be battling, and be battling," Hummer said at her parents' dining room table, which was covered with file folders, newspaper clippings, photographs, maps, boxes of documents, and copies of vicious emails and letters.

Some family members now talk about selling their businesses and leaving the town they've called home for more than 40 years. Hummer has even asked environmental activists to name unpolluted places that might make good new hometowns.

Some Ash Grove supporters might be relieved if the family left. One of the nastier letters that littered Elise Galemore's porch after the contentious meeting last year suggested the entire family pick up and leave the country.

"This would be a perfect solution for the Galemore family and entourage," the anonymous letter said. "Wouldn’t it be great to leave the imperfections of Chanute and its citizens behind … and relish the perfection of Galemoreville in the Greek Islands?"

"It's getting real close," Hummer says with a sigh, "where we're now saying 'enough.' ”

This story was reported by Sarah Harris for the Center for Public Integrity and Slate, and by Howard Berkes of NPR.

Correction Nov. 10, 2011:
This article originally described David Orr as a former county commissioner. He ran for office but was never the incumbent. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Howard Berkes is NPR's Rural Affairs Correspondent and has worked 30 years at the network. He has won awards for breaking news, science, and sports journalism, and was a 1998 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University.

Sarah Harris is a 2010 recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in environmental journalism. She has worked at North Country Public Radio and the Transom Story Workshop.