Letter from Sacramento: Cement Needs to Come Clean

  • Posted on 27 February 2019
  • By Kathryn Phillips, Director, Sierra Club California
A few weeks ago, Sierra Club California released a report we commissioned about California’s cement industry.
The findings were stark: Despite California's world-leading effort to address climate change, California's cement industry has still not taken urgently needed steps to reduce its carbon pollution. Cement plants here are still burning coal, and in many cases are dirtier than similar plants in Europe and Asia.
Our report made a big impression, including on the cement industry itself. Unfortunately, the industry's reaction has been to twist the findings to suit its own purposes.
Some cement industry proponents are flooding social media and taking out newspaper ads suggesting the Sierra Club supports a proposed new cement plant to be built near a residential neighborhood in Vallejo. The industry has even claimed that we support using hazardous waste material in the cement production.
The cement industry is wrong. Here are the facts:
Sierra Club opposes the proposed Vallejo cement plant. It’s the wrong use for the waterfront property that abuts residential neighborhoods. Cement production is dirty business and in that respect, the proposed cement plant is like every other existing cement plant in California. The City of Vallejo must and can find better economic development uses for that property that provide good jobs and don’t pollute the neighborhood as the cement plant would.
Sierra Club opposes mixing hazardous materials into cement. There are things out there called “supplementary cementitious material” or SCMs that can reduce or replace limestone in cement. Some of those SCMs are natural products, like volcanic ash, and have been part of the binding used in cement for eons. But over the years, the cement industry has begun using and promoting the use of highly toxic materials, including waste from the plastic industry and the steel industry. Our volunteers around the country have rightly fought this trend, which exposes people--from cement workers to plant neighbors--to seriously harmful toxic pollutants.
Sierra Club opposes using polluting fuels to fire up kilns in cement plants. One of the most shocking revelations in the report is that the dominant fuels used in the eight existing cement plants in California include coal and petroleum coke. These are dirty fuels whose pollution includes the kind of emissions that the state has policies to cut to protect public health and stop climate change. California cement has managed to duck the demand other companies have met to shift to clean energy.
The report was produced by an independent consulting firm led by an expert in greenhouse gas emissions and industrial processes. It reveals what other countries do that makes their cement plants, on average, so much cleaner than California’s cement plants.
The report is a revelation. It is about what’s happening in California, and to some extent in other parts of the world, with cement manufacturing and climate pollution. The report is not a policy position. It is one scientist’s review of the state of cement in California.
The Sierra Club has been combating the toxic emissions of cement kilns with allies around the country for decades. We have worked to end hazardous waste incineration in Portland cement kilns.
We stridently agree with the report’s most important and disturbing finding: California’s cement industry is also a filthy emitter of carbon, and it needs to clean up its act.
The proposed Vallejo plant has a range of problems. For one thing, the location is simply inappropriate for a facility that will be releasing toxic emissions and particulate pollution. The proposed plant will have an environmental justice impact in a low-income area, burdening an already stressed community with additional risks to community health.
The cement industry should stop dancing around the issue and face the facts. Cleaning up doesn’t mean plopping a new cement plant in a neighborhood in Vallejo. It doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing toxic waste emissions.
All aspects of this dirty industry need to be cleaned up to achieve a real solution.  


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