GLENS FALLS — The state Department of Environmental Conservation has approved an air permit update for Lehigh Northeast Cement Co. to burn a paper and plastic mixture called raggertail.
The alternative fuel source will be burned in the company’s cement kiln along with coal or natural gas.
In a statement to The Post-Star, the DEC said it “determined the emissions/operations reflected in the application to be in full compliance with New York’s stringent rules and regulations governing air emissions, which are fully protective of public health and the environment. DEC will continue to provide strict oversight of the facility, including conducting regular inspections to ensure all conditions of the permit are met.”
The DEC’s approval comes after months of questions and concerns from local residents in the Glens Falls region. Nearly 60 comments were submitted on the application, after the DEC comment period was extended twice and Lehigh held a public informational meeting.
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John Brodt, vice president of Behan Communications and spokesman for Lehigh, said Friday that the company was pleased the DEC approved the permit change “after an extremely thorough scientific review and public comment process.”
“This is an important decision for our Glens Falls plant and the nearly 100 local people who work there,” Brodt wrote in an email. “We look forward to continuing to work hard to keep our plant competitive for the long-term.”
Raggertail is made up of recycled cardboard packaging, which can include some plastic wrapping and tape, along with stray staples or wire. The mixture will come from Frontier Fibers, now called Alternative Resource management, from western New York.
Brodt said one revision made to the approved permit is that Lehigh will have to “sample the contents of the raggertail product each day it is used.”
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Lehigh has continuously touted the burning of the alternative fuel as a way to keep the product out of landfills and a way to reduce the plant’s use of fossil fuels.
A trial run of the product conducted in 2017 also showed the plant’s air emissions levels for pollutants were “below currently allowable levels, which have been determined by state and federal regulators to be protective of human health and the environment,” Brodt added.
The DEC’s decision and explanations to submitted comments have not appeased everyone, however.
Judith Enck, former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she still believes the DEC should have required Lehigh to conduct an environmental impact statement.
The DEC said, in response to that comment submitted on the application, that an environmental impact statement was not justified.
“Just yesterday, Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo signed an important new climate change law that committed New York to significantly reduce pollution that causes climate change, yet the Cuomo administration recently approved the burning of massive amounts of plastic and paper in a New York cement kiln,” Enck wrote in an email. “The people of upstate New York deserve better and the DEC needs to update its decision-making process if the governor is serious about driving down air pollution in New York.”
Tracy Frisch, who started a local grassroots organization, the Clean Air Action Network, shortly after Lehigh’s proposal was released, was disappointed with the DEC’s decision too.
Frisch, and others who submitted comments to the DEC, were concerned that the test burn showed increased levels of heavy metals in the plant’s emissions when raggertail was burned.
“These are health-harming chemicals, and no amount is good in our environment or in in our bodies,” Frisch said. “This is a troubling development that was approved without adequate explanation for these contaminants.”
The DEC in its comments pointed to an air-quality mapping tool it has worked on with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s called the National Air Toxics Assessment, and it evaluates hazardous pollutants in a region.
The DEC said the tool is used to determine whether air monitors or more stringent permit conditions are needed to protect a community. The DEC added that the state “remains committed to closely monitoring and reducing emissions from pollution sources and working with Glens Falls and other communities across the state to improve air quality.”
A DEC document shows the comments submitted, with reactions and explanations from the DEC. Here are some of them:
- What are the highest and best uses for the material to be burned?
DEC said since raggertail “is not feasible for further recycling, NYS solid waste management policy ... states that energy should be recovered from waste in preference to its disposal through incineration or land burial.”
- Comments expressed concern about the health impacts of burning raggertail. A comment pointed to a 2002 EPA report that says there is no safe threshold of dioxin, a cancer-causing pollutant.
The DEC said the emission rates were below levels of concern. Concerning dioxin, the DEC said “EPA continues to examine this issue. ... It also should be noted that the emissions testing performed by Lehigh showed a decrease in dioxin emissions when burning raggertail.”
- Comments asked about continuous emissions monitoring under the air permit.
The DEC said Lehigh continuously monitors for nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, particulates, mercury and total hydrocarbons. For dioxins, “Lehigh performs stack testing every 30 months to demonstrate compliance with the applicable emission limit,” the DEC said. So far, those tests have shown “emissions are well below the applicable federal emission limit for cement kilns.”
- A comment suggested the DEC should compare burning raggertail to burning gas, and not to coal.
DEC said it “does not make permitting determinations by comparing emissions during one scenario to emissions during another. Permitting determinations are made by measuring and/or calculating the worst-case emissions associated with the project being proposed and evaluating them relative to the applicable regulatory requirements.”
DEC added that the trial burn included “this worst-case scenario,” burning the raggertail with coal, which it found was below “the applicable regulatory requirements.”
- Will raggertail produce any strong odors?
DEC said it shouldn’t.
Two comments commended Lehigh for using raggertail. One called it a “positive change to our community.”
“It (Lehigh) is a responsible, valued member of New York state’s manufacturing community and has chosen a responsible and progressive approach to reducing its production costs while protecting the environment,” one comment read.
Brodt said Lehigh does not yet have a start date to burn raggertail.