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September 11, 2002

Hazardous Waste as Fuel: Conservation or Corporate Irresponsibility?
    by William Baue

The cement industry calls the use of hazardous waste to fuel cement kilns recycling while critics of the practice call it dangerous. -- In July, the Cement Sustainability Initiative (CSI) released Our Agenda for Action, a report that details the global cement industry's plans to implement sustainable practices. World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) President Bjorn Stigson praised the report as the first instance of an industry critiquing its sustainability performance and proposing specific plans for improvement. However, critics remain dubious of the cement industry's actual commitment to sustainability.

"Many who have followed the industry (including scientists, health professionals, and former regulators, along with grassroots activists) have expressed doubts that the 'Sustainability' initiative is anything more than empty rhetoric," Sam Pratt, executive director of Friends of Hudson, told Friends of Hudson opposes the construction of a cement kiln in New York by St. Lawrence Cement (ticker: ST.A). St. Lawrence is a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Holcim Ltd., a member of CSI.

"The industry has learned how to co-opt the language of the environmental movement, dressing up their activities in a 'green' mantle that hides a multitude of ugly practices," continued Mr. Pratt. "For example, the dangerous but highly profitable use of hazardous waste as fuel for their kilns has lately been repositioned as 'recycling' and 'alternative fuel sources. '"

Our Agenda for Action addresses the use of waste as fuel, though it elides the term "hazardous."

"Using these wastes is a key service that cement companies can provide to society," the report states. "As well as reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed to produce cement, it prevents large volumes of material from going to landfill or being burned in incinerators."

Although this description tells only part of the story, cement companies are not skirting the law. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows cement kilns to burn hazardous waste even though the kilns are not designed for this purpose. EPA research has found kilns that burn hazardous waste emit much more pollution than kilns that do not burn hazardous waste. They also emit more pollution than incinerators designed to burn hazardous waste. So why use cement kilns to burn hazardous waste?

Holcim U.S. Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs Tom Chizmadia told about the economic benefits of using hazardous waste as fuel. Fuel costs account for one-quarter to one-third of cement manufacturing expenses, according to Mr. Chizmadia. Hazardous waste producers actually pay cement companies for providing disposal services. From an economic perspective, this solution generates income and energy from hazardous waste, which otherwise has no suitable value according to Mr. Chizmadia.

The American Lung Association (ALA) contends that burning hazardous waste in certified incinerators does generate clear value for society.

"Proponents of the use of hazardous waste fuel argue that kilns recycle the energy value of waste whereas incinerators do not," states an ALA report. "However, both hazardous waste burning kilns and incinerators use the [combustion] value of waste to perform tasks society deems important; producing cement in one case; detoxifying dangerous chemicals in the other."

In other words, cement kilns do not detoxify dangerous chemicals effectively but instead create health and environmental threats, according to the ALA. Furthermore, cement kilns do not always operate or employ pollution-reduction equipment properly, despite the threat of regulatory fines.

"Even the largest fines which have come to our attention (over $550,000 for Holcim's Dundee, Michigan plant in 1999, over $800,000 for their Holly Hills plant in the Carolinas in the early 90s) are the corporate equivalent of a parking ticket for an ordinary citizen," said Mr. Pratt.

Mr. Chizmadia clarified that the Dundee plant does not burn hazardous waste, though he did admit that the fine resulted from the use of older pollution-control equipment that had been slated for replacement. Mr. Pratt pointed out that the fine covered nineteen years of violations.

"The EPA wrote . . . that the amount imposed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was, in fact, so low that it probably would serve as an incentive for the company to continue such practices, not a deterrent," said Mr. Pratt.

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