Permission To Pollute
A town on the Kansas prairie finds itself fighting not only a local cement plant, but the EPA.
Posted Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, at 7:23 AM
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Jeff Galemore pointed to house after house as he steered his white pickup through a tree-lined neighborhood in Chanute, Kan., a town of 9,000 on the state's southeastern prairie. "This person right here has cancer," the 53-year-old oil-field worker said with alarm. "His granddaughter has cancer. … This gal has cancer. The one across the street from where I live has cancer. Two houses south of me has cancer. But they repeatedly tell us there's not a problem."
Three miles north and east, part-time Lutheran minister and pecan grower Ken Lott wondered why it had been so quiet on his rural Chanute farm. "I used to have bullfrogs out here all the time," explains Lott, 71. It's been at least seven years since he's heard the melodic croaking.
At the opposite end of town, retired railroad worker Dale Stout, 80, lamented the deaths of seven hedge trees that were almost as old as him. "They planted it after the dust bowl," Stout said of the sturdy row of trees used as windbreaks and natural fences. "You don't just up and kill a hedge tree."
Stout, Lott, and Galemore are worried that emissions from a century-old cement plant in Chanute are responsible for the human and environmental damage around them. They are among many Americans who may have cause for concern: Two decades after a Democratic Congress and a Republican president sought to bring under control the emissions of nearly 200 dangerous chemicals, millions of people continue to be exposed to them in the air they breathe.
But the object of citizen concern here—the Ash Grove Cement Co.’s plant—is different. It is not one of the 1,600 chemical plants, oil refineries, cement kilns, and other facilities considered "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor is it one of the facilities on an internal EPA “watch list” obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR that includes serious or chronic offenders with violations not formally and promptly addressed by regulators.
In fact, state and federal regulators express no concerns about the plant. It stays within limits on emissions, they say, and has not run afoul of the law. It is, by all appearances, a good corporate citizen. “We have a standard and we comply with it,” said a company vice president, Curtis Lesslie. Karl Brooks, the EPA regional administrator with authority in Kansas concurred: “The plant is in compliance,” he said.
It just happens to have permission to pollute.
Federal rules establish a unique class of polluter for cement kilns, like the massive one in Chanute, that burn hazardous waste for fuel. The law allows them to emit greater amounts of some toxic chemicals into the air than the hazardous-waste incinerators specially designed to burn the very same chemicals—including industrial solvents, aluminum-plant waste, and other toxic leftovers from the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and oil.
When operating at capacity, the Chanute plant has discharged into the air more than 500 pounds of mercury a year, though the economic downturn has cut operations and mercury emissions the last three years. Mercury is one of the nearly 200 toxic substances singled out in the bipartisan effort to toughen the Clean Air Act two decades ago, and the EPA still struggles to limit it. Unlike hazardous-waste incinerators, cement kilns built or rebuilt before 2005 can release 43 percent more lead and cadmium, as much as twice the hydrocarbons, close to four times the hydrogen chloride and chlorine gas, and twice the particulate matter, according to EPA standards. Altogether, 13 kilns in six states operate under those standards and can emit toxics at those levels.
Three newer or upgraded kilns, including an Ash Grove plant in Arkansas, can emit even more toxic pollutants under EPA standards—15 times the mercury as hazardous waste incinerators, 18 times the lead and cadmium, twice the arsenic, beryllium, and chromium, five times the hydrocarbons, more than four times the hydrogen chloride and chlorine gas, and four times the particulates.
Such elevated levels are not harmful, said EPA official Brooks. State and federal standards are “set with a margin of public health and safety.” Mike Benoit, spokesman for the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition, said the limits are far more stringent “than what is necessary to protect human health and the environment.” Levels involved are small. “We're talking about nanograms. We're talking about micrograms,” said Benoit. “Millionths of a gram—billionths of a gram."
Downwind of the Chanute plant, some people aren’t easily reassured. They find it hard to fathom regulations that would allow large amounts of hazardous pollution. Monitoring is neither independent nor capable of detecting most toxins leaving the plant. Meanwhile, proof of harm in the community is elusive: As is often the case, there’s not any evidence that links the harm people perceive to the source they suspect. And, as in many other places with a polluter as a neighbor, there are indications of coziness between industry and government that makes average citizens wonder whether they are being heard or protected.
In Chanute, anxieties over a government-approved, toxic form of pollution that may be fouling the air, harming health, and poisoning the soil and water have exposed deep divisions in a community that has long valued the century-old company on the edge of town as an employer, benefactor and source of revenue.
Photograph by David Gilkey/NPR.
It was supposed to be an informational meeting for concerned citizens at a popular park pavilion in downtown Chanute. Jeff Galemore, his five middle-aged siblings and his parents organized the event after deciding to take their concerns to their neighbors. On an October day last year, they fanned out across town, tacking notices to bulletin boards, dropping them on doorsteps and stuffing them into mailboxes. The flyers announced the gathering of the new “Chanute Environmental Rights Group.”
The Galemores describe themselves as conservative Republicans and they align with candidates and causes not considered sympathetic to tough environmental regulation. Jeff Galemore, who works with his dad in the family oil business, recently posted a sign on his front lawn announcing a meeting of a local Tea Party group. His sister, Selene Hummer, 51, owns a home-decorating store and proudly displays a "Sarah Palin 2012" bumper sticker on the rear window of her pickup.
"We're not really tree-hugging liberals," said Hummer. "But when your environment becomes damaged or you feel that you're being contaminated—I don't care what party you're in—this is your human life."
How did it all start? “We noticed mold on the houses,” said Hummer. "We started noticing that people couldn’t breathe. We started noticing the high rates of cancer and we started thinking there was only one direction it could be coming from.”
The Galemores were already well known in Chanute. One brother sits on the city commission; another is a county commissioner. The rest of the family also is active in local politics. With eight businesses between them—including a lumber yard, the oil wells, a pharmacy, a printing shop, and the home-decorating store—the family’s concerns usually had more to do with taxes and government spending.
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.