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News & Issues February-March 2019


Cleaner than coal?

Cement company’s alternative-fuel plan raises questions about air emissions



The sprawling Lehigh Cement Co. plant in Glens Falls is seeking approval from state regulators to supplement its normal fuel supply of coal and natural gas with raggertail, a mixture of plastic and paper left over the process of recycling paper and cardboard. Joan K. Lentini photoThe sprawling Lehigh Cement Co. plant in Glens Falls is seeking approval from state regulators to supplement its normal fuel supply of coal and natural gas with raggertail, a mixture of plastic and paper left over the process of recycling paper and cardboard. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


A proposal to burn recycling wastes as fuel at a local cement plant has raised alarm among environmental advocates and elected officials in the Glens Falls area in recent weeks, prompting calls for a more detailed state review of the proposal.

The Lehigh Cement Co. plant is seeking approval from state environmental regulators to burn a mixture of plastic and paper left over from the process of recycling paper and cardboard. This waste material, known as raggertail, would otherwise be shipped to landfills for disposal.

The cement company says this alternative fuel would supplement the natural gas and coal it now burns to fire its cement-making kilns, thereby lowering the plant’s costs – and helping to protect local jobs -- without running afoul of the emissions limits set by the facility’s current state permits.
But some activists question whether plastics, which make up more than half of the alternative fuel mixture, can safely be burned without yielding toxic compounds like dioxins and furans – even though the company’s tests appear to show the releases of these chemicals would be well below state thresholds.

At the same time, the details of the company’s test burning have raised questions among some local elected officials who’ve been dismayed to learn what pollutants the plant emits in the course of its normal gas- and coal-fired operations.

“What’s being tested, and what aren’t we testing for?” asked South Glens Falls Mayor Harry Gutheil, whose village sits across the Hudson River from the plant. “How often are the results being made public?”

Responding to the concerns of Gutheil and elected officials in Glens Falls and Queensbury, the cement company has agreed to hold a public meeting to provide information and answer questions about its alternative fuel proposal. That session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Queensbury Hotel in downtown Glens Falls.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation also has repeatedly extended its public comment period on the proposal, which originally was scheduled to end in December.


Tests within safety limits
The Lehigh Cement Co. plant, part of the international HeidelbergCement Group, sits on the north bank of the Hudson River, on the eastern edge of the city of Glens Falls. Just across the Hudson are the limestone quarries that provide raw material for the plant’s kilns. The complex employs nearly 100 people and has been in continuous operation for 125 years, making it the oldest cement manufacturer in the nation.

Under its current air emissions permits, Lehigh is allowed to burn coal and natural gas. It’s seeking permission from the DEC to replace between 10 percent and 15 percent of its conventional fuel with raggertail.

Lehigh did test burns of raggertail in 2017. The company hired a consultant to carry out the tests, which were conducted under the direction and supervision of the DEC.

The results of those tests showed that dioxins and furans, filterable particulates, total hydrocarbons, and mercury were all well below the levels allowed in the plant’s current emissions permits.

Lehigh also tested for materials that the state regulates but are not specified in its permit. Some of those materials, which are also given off during regular burns, were undetectable, and the rest were within state limits.

In a written statement provided by its community liaison, John Brodt of Behan Communications, Lehigh officials said the company “has explored a number of alternative fuels for use in combination with coal and/or natural gas, and chose this particular fuel because it is cost-effective and keeps our air emissions well within allowable limits. Increasing the use of alternative fuels remains a priority for Lehigh across all cement plants, as we strive to achieve more sustainable manufacturing.”

In a separate fact sheet, plant officials emphasized that they are not asking for higher emissions limits and that DEC has not offered to raise them.

Lehigh released its test results in late December, just a few days before the DEC’s public comment period on the alternative fuel proposal was originally scheduled to end. Since then, in response to public pressure, the agency has extended the comment deadline several times, most recently until Feb. 25, and DEC officials have indicated that deadline is likely to be extended again until after the cement company’s Feb. 27 information session.

The DEC also could schedule its own public hearing on the alternative fuel proposal. That session, if held, must be scheduled within 45 days of the end of the public comment period.


Cement Plant in Glens Falls NY Joan K. Lentini photoEnergy-intensive industry
Cement is one of the components of concrete. It’s made of a carbonate source such as limestone that is crushed and combined with other minerals and materials. This mixture is cooked at temperatures of up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit to create a rock-like substance called clinker. After cooling, the clinker is ground and mixed with gypsum and other ingredients to complete the cement-making process.

Because of the extreme heat required, cement manufacturing is highly energy-intensive. Lehigh says fuel accounts for more than 25 percent of its total production costs. Coal, natural gas and fuel oil are the major fuel sources for the cement industry.

But to reduce costs and environmental impacts, cement plants worldwide burn or have experimented with a wide range of alternative fuels. These include agricultural wastes and sewage, asphalt shingles and shredded tires, used railroad ties and utility poles, and processed unrecyclable plastic.

“Engineered fuels are commonly used in HeidelbergCement plants in Europe and Asia, where there are more mature and developed alternative fuel supply markets,” the company said in a statement.

The Global Cement and Concrete Association contends that for materials that can’t be recycled otherwise, the cement manufacturing process is a more environmentally friendly method of disposal than waste-to-energy incineration or landfills.

Four of Heidelberg’s plants in the United States and Canada are already permitted to use fuels similar to raggertail that are left over from paper and cardboard recycling processes.

Raggertail, also called ragger wire, pulper tails or pulper rope, forms when plastic sheets and pieces, foil, staples, wire, insoluble paper, and other debris wraps itself around baling wire in the bottom of a cardboard pulping vat. The resulting ropes are compact and very tough, comprising about 45 percent steel and 55 percent other materials.

Usually raggertail is sent to a landfill, but several companies worldwide make machinery that can chop raggertail and remove the metal. The remaining material is 60 percent plastic, 40 percent paper, and inflammable. The Santarosa Group, an industrial waste and recycling company in Niagara Falls, recently installed equipment to process raggertail.

According to Lehigh, “raggertail’s BTU content is less than coal and natural gas, primarily due to its moisture content, but more than sufficient to provide considerable heat input to the kiln.” If the proposal for its Glens Falls plant is approved, Lehigh would burn it only in combination with coal or natural gas. Before the test burn, the company invested more than $500,000 in equipment to handle raggertail.


Dioxins, furans, mercury
Burning plastic at low temperatures creates dioxins and furans, which can harm human health. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says high-temperature combustion destroys most of those chemicals, while smokestack anti-pollution systems can capture almost all of what’s left.
Lehigh’s test showed emissions of dioxin and furans that were only about 1 percent of what the state allows. The company also says that because of the high temperatures and chemical reactions within the kiln, the raggertail will leave no ash.

The company’s tests showed some release of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Plant officials pointed out that low levels of mercury occur naturally in coal and limestone and stressed that “in general, mercury is present in raggertail only in trace amounts, if at all.”

Lehigh is competing with other cement companies worldwide, including what the company called “a massive, government-subsidized facility in Canada, which has been flooding the Eastern Seaboard with low-cost product since beginning operations” in 2017.

Burning raggertail, the company says, will help it to keep costs down so the local plant can remain competitive.

But the prospect of burning waste materials has raised fears in the surrounding community that the result will be new airborne contaminants. Dioxins and furans both are believed to cause cancer and have been implicated in a variety of other human health problems. When released into the air, these toxic compounds can travel long distances, so any emissions from the Glens Falls plant could be dispersed by the prevailing winds over a wide area of Washington County and southern Vermont.

Public concerns about cement plant emissions aren’t unique to the Glens Falls area. Last year, the Lafarge Holcim cement plant in the Albany County village of Ravena, the only other remaining cement manufacturer in New York, found itself at the center of controversy when a company bidding for municipal solid waste from central Connecticut claimed Lafarge had agreed to take some of the waste. Lafarge officials denied any such agreement, noting that the plant wasn’t equipped to burn municipal solid waste.

Lafarge then asked the DEC to renew an expired permit that would allow it to burn up to 4.8 million tires per year at its plant, which is just across the Hudson from northern Columbia County. In response, the town board of Coeymans, which includes Ravena, is considering passing a local law that would severely restrict the burning of any material other than conventional fuel -- and would set local emissions standards that the town could enforce independently of the DEC.
In Glens Falls, Lehigh Cement tested another type of alternative fuel -- made from recycled plastics, paper and other materials and sold under the brand name Enviro-Fuel Cubes – in 2010. A coalition of state and local environmental groups organized to oppose that proposal, and Lehigh ultimately opted not to burn the cubes, though the company attributed that decision to concerns about whether the fuel’s manufacturer could ensure an adequate supply.


High cancer incidence
Some of Lehigh’s neighbors are worried about the impact of burning raggertail in Glens Falls because the area is already recognized as having one of the highest cancer rates in the state. Lehigh Cement is among a string of smokestack industries along that stretch of the Hudson, including three paper mills and a waste-to-energy incinerator in Hudson Falls that has the capacity to process up to 500 tons a day of municipal and commercial waste.

Judith Enck, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional director who is now a senior advisor at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, criticized Lehigh’s fact sheet and release of its test results just before the December comment deadline as inadequate and tardy.

Enck said she is skeptical of the accuracy of tests done by a company-hired consultant. She also questioned Lehigh’s claims that the kiln’s high temperatures would prevent the release of dioxins and furans.

“Some dioxins and furans can be removed with sophisticated pollution controls, but it never gets all of it,” she said via e-mail. “Lehigh (not DEC) did a comparison of burning paper and plastic vs. coal and said it performs better than coal. However, they did not do a comparison of burning paper and plastic vs. natural gas. That is needed. … This is a new approach that should very much have an environmental impact statement, something that the DEC, to date, has failed to require.”

Glens Falls Mayor Dan Hall said he worked with officials in South Glens Falls and the town of Queensbury to request this month’s public meeting with Lehigh and for an extension of the public comment period.
“Obviously, we’re not scientists,” he said. “Lehigh’s doing what it needs to do. We’ll wait for the DEC process to play out.”

Robin Barkenhagen, an officer of the Warren County Green Party who was the party’s candidate for a local Assembly seat in 2016, said the political party, which has about 200 members in the area, has been pushing the Glens Falls city government to take a pro-active approach in reviewing the cement company’s proposal.

“We raised our concerns with the City Council last Tuesday,” Barkenhagen said in mid-January. “We want to make sure due diligence is done, and the city seems to be doing that. We’ll submit questions for the public forum.”

The village of South Glens Falls has taken no position on the proposal.
“We’re trying to get the facts,” Gutheil said.

He said his concern is not just with Lehigh, but also with emissions “from anyone else in the area -- the paper mills and the resource recovery facility.

“Everybody’s looking for places to burn tires and garbage,” Gutheil said. “We want to make sure enough controls are built in. If this is a supplement, what will it lead to?

“We want to reduce the carbon footprint,” he added. “But we want to know the trade-offs.”