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A Toxic Debate

Tests results indicate high levels of mercury in Ravena population, as plans move forward on an expansion at cement plant that may be to blame

by Laurie Lynn Fischer on January 12, 2011

Time is running out for public comment before the State Department of Environmental Conservation decides whether to approve a proposed multimillion-dollar plant expansion that would enable French-owned Lafarge North America to produce more cement at its Ravena plant.
Members of the community have until Feb. 22 to comment in writing on the draft environmental impact statement that will become Lafarge’s operating permit. People can also comment in person during a 6 PM Legislative hearing on Feb. 20 in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School auditorium.

The draft permit is based on the assumption that the first-ever federal restrictions on cement plant mercury emissions will take effect by the time the plant upgrade is expected to be finished in 2014. Mercury—a potent neurotoxin—is linked with health risks ranging from lowered IQ to autism.

EPA scientists have estimated that the new regulations would prevent 2,500 premature deaths and thousands of heart attacks and respiratory incidents, and save billions of dollars in annual health costs.
However, Republicans are trying to shoot down this new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency law, which is expected to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent. Two days after the new GOP majority took over in the U.S. House of Representatives, congressmen started pushing for a resolution to overturn the new limits.

“Without these important EPA rules, our families will continue to be exposed to mercury and other toxic pollution from the Lafarge plant in Ravena, New York,” said Susan Falzon, spokeswoman for the environmental watchdog group Friends of Hudson. “It sickens me that some of our elected leaders are trying to remove these protections.”
Former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone found elevated mercury levels in soil, plants and animals on the western shore of the Hudson last year.

“We have found [elevated mercury levels in the schoolyard, among other places,” he said. “We found it in farm fields north of the plant and in rock from the quarry.”

Recently, Stone has turned his attention to the wildlife and soils on the eastern shore of the Hudson. So far he has taken 20 samples of soils and animals, including a woodchuck, in Columbia County.
The latest tests are showing higher heavy metal concentrations than he anticipated, he said. Stone plans to release preliminary results about his latest findings at the Jan. 20 hearing.

Last week, Michael Bank, a researcher from the Harvard School of Public Health, came to the high school across Route 9W from the cement plant to release results of his human mercury exposure study. It found elevated levels of the neurotoxin in people who live near the Lafarge Ravena cement plant on both sides of the river.

Nine percent of test subjects—all of whom live within 10 miles of the Route 9W facility—had blood mercury levels outside of New York state’s official comfort zone. Blood samples drawn from 13 out of 172 people tested exceeded the state mercury threshold of 5 parts per billion.

Individuals will not get their results until the study has undergone peer review and been published in a scholarly journal, said Bank. Those with high levels will be advised to seek medical attention, he said.
“We have provided multiple lines of evidence that, at least for mercury in blood, Ravena is higher than the national average, with the exception of childbearing women,” he said.

Usually, fish are the major source of mercury contamination. But in this study, only 16 percent of adult mercury levels and half of the children’s mercury levels could be explained by their fish consumption habits.

“There is a high mercury exposure group that doesn’t appear to be eating a lot of fish,” Bank said. “There’s a potential other source and that source has not been identified.”

Mercury wasn’t the only heavy metal Bank looked for. About 20 individuals—or roughly 12 percent of those tested—showed elevated levels of mercury, lead, aluminum or combinations of these. Such a cocktail of metals can have synergistic effects, he said.

“Twelve percent is not trivial,” Bank said. “Twelve percent of the population here had metal levels that were above the individual guidelines. There were people who had all three . . . You have to consider the chemical mixture, both in the environment and in (their systems.)”

This study is just a “standard first pass,” said Bank, who hopes to conduct “a more fine-scale analysis” in the future.

“We will definitely be looking at spatial patterns in the community—if there are clumps of people . . . who stand out,” he said.

Bank also wants “to examine the interrelationship among metals” and use mercury and lead isotopes—which serve as tracers or fingerprints—to find out where the metals originated.

Currently, Bank is exploring funding sources for follow-up research over a period of years. He would like to test the urine of a larger sample of people. “A systems level study that looks at vegetation and soils” may also be in the cards, he said.

Because coal-burning industry, including cement manufacture, emits inorganic mercury, he said, “a study of inorganic mercury in urine would be a very important test to look at a better approach for monitoring short-term local impacts.”

Asked whether the Ravena Coeymans-Selkirk school district would condone a study of students, Superintendent Daniel Teplesky said it would be up to the school board. He also said he’d like to see a breakdown of which test subjects live within the school district.
RCS Board of Education President Scott Hughes said he “wouldn’t be opposed to” a more in-depth study. There may be legal issues with conducting it on school grounds, he said.

Although Lafarge Ravena is one of the state’s top mercury polluters, nobody has proven whether that pollution is any worse near the smokestack than it is globally. The question of whether the cement plant is responsible for local health problems has divided the community.

Mary Driscoll, whose late husband worked at Lafarge Ravena, was among some 100 people who came to hear Bank announce his study results last week. She has lived in the village for 45 years.

“I feel the pollution that is coming out of their mouths is more harmful to the community than anything the cement plant can do,” Driscoll said. “When these people give up their cars, their washing machines and everything else, then they can talk about pollution.”

Selkirk resident Marcia McCoy and her 6-year-old daughter both participated in Bank’s study. They live down the road from the cement plant on Route 9W. McCoy plans to move out of range of Lafarge. She believes the plant is behind the health problems she and her children suffer from, including asthma, seizures, respiratory failure and bipolar disorder.

“There should be a stage two,” she said. “I’d like to see the urine testing and see testing at a different time of year. I think if they could get more people in the study, the results would be even higher.”

“They need to go further,” agreed Michael Carey, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate this fall. Carey said he is interested in public policy regarding mercury poisoning, because it has been linked with autism. He got his start in politics lobbying for legislation to protect the handicapped after his institutionalized son, who suffered from autism, died after being strapped down in a van and left alone by caregivers.

Lafarge public relations specialist Saleem Cheeks also came to hear the study results. Asked to comment, he handed over a prepared statement from Lafarge environmental manager John Reagan.
“Like our neighbors, we look forward to a complete understanding of Dr. Bank’s study, including the testing protocols he used and his detailed results,” it said.