North / South America
Harvard University to examine effects of pollution from Lafarge Ravena cement site
Nov, 12 2009
(Ravena, New York) -- People who live near the massive smokestacks of the Lafarge cement plant have wondered for years if pollution might be making them or their children ill. Almost half a century after the plant opened, two studies will examine that question -- one conducted by the state, the other by private experts from Harvard University.
The state Health Department is conducting a "public health assessment" for the plant, according to spokeswoman Beth Goldberg. The study will recommend actions "that might be needed to prevent or reduce people's exposure to hazardous substances at or released from the site."
The ongoing Health Department study comes as another state agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, is preparing to issue a new air pollution permit for Lafarge. Local residents, however, want more time to review the proposed permit before DEC stops taking comments on Dec. 5.
Located on Route 9W across from Ravena's junior and senior high schools, the plant is the state's second-largest source of airborne mercury, a potent neurotoxin dangerous to developing fetuses and pregnant women. Lafarge has reported varying annual mercury emissions this decade, from a high of 400 pounds between 2003 and 2006 to a low of 146 pounds for the period ending in December.
The proposed permit would limit emissions to 176 pounds a year, a limit that represents the plant's two coal-fired kilns operating at 85 percent of annual capacity using a normal mix of limestone, bauxite and coal fly ash to make cement. The items are all sources of mercury.
The plant's annual output of actual emissions, as estimated by DEC this spring, was 167 pounds.
Local residents have become more vocal in pushing the state to study potential health effects of pollution from the plant. Elyse Kunz, co-founder of Community Advocates for Safe Emissions, said Wednesday that she was unclear after months of meetings with the Health Department as to how it intended to conduct the study, and whether people will be interviewed.
"We have a lot of people here with cancer, children with autism," said Kunz. For example, there are four children in Ravena suffering from Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer in young people that usually affects just one child in 500,000. The entire county has less than 300,000 people.
"We have offered to have DOH speak with residents, but I cannot tell what they have started," Kunz said.
Meanwhile, her group is getting its own health study by nationally known experts from Harvard University. It will examine distribution of mercury, heavy metals and other pollutants, and involve chemistry, contaminant biology and spatial analyses, said Michael Bank, a research associate at the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 2007, Bank studied mercury levels in New York's lakes for the state Energy Research and Development Authority. He also has published scientific studies of mercury toxicity in wildlife in Acadia National Park in Maine; birds in the Boston area; and aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Our job is to provide objective, process-based science for the local community, and to share this information with the public and other scientists," said Bank, who is working with Harvard colleague John Spengler.
Goldberg could not provide the Times Union with any written outline that described to DOH staff how the Lafarge study should be conducted, but said some data will be made public early next year.
"We are currently gathering, summarizing and evaluating the existing environmental data related to this site," said Goldberg. "We plan to make this data summary available to the public for input. ... The process of performing and completing the (assessment) will be guided by both the available environmental and health outcome data and input from the public."
Susan Falzon, director of Friends of Hudson, an environmental group that has been pushing for reduced mercury pollution from Lafarge, said that unless state health officials "hear the painful stories of illness that we hear all the time, I do not know how they can make any determinations. ... We offered to collect statements from people for them. DOH neither accepted nor declined."
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