Now that the public comment period has ended, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will be making a decision on whether it will update Lehigh Northeast Cement Co.’s air permit to burn a paper and plastic mixture called raggertail.
But a member of the cement company’s informal community advisory group still has concerns about heavy metal levels emitted in the alternative fuel’s test results, and state and Lehigh officials haven’t answered specifically where those pollutants are coming from.
Pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and mercury appear to be emitted at higher levels with the raggertail mixture than without, according to a summary table of the trial burn test results in Lehigh’s air permit application.
Tracy Frisch, a member of Lehigh’s community advisory group and organizer of the forming group Glens Falls Wants Clean Air, asked DEC and Lehigh about the increases and got two different answers.
DEC told her it was from the variability in the limestone, she said. Lehigh told her, she continued, that it could be from wire and nails found in the raggertail, but that Frontier Fibers, the western New York company that makes the raggertail, had updated its equipment to remove metal from the mixture with magnets and an eddy current.
“It’s just extremely confusing,” Frisch said. “Were there ever such high levels of these things in these air tests? That seems like an important question that DEC should be able to answer. It seems too odd that the limestone that was burned with the raggertail has all these components, but the limestone without the raggertail does not.”
John Brodt, vice president of Behan Communications and spokesman for Lehigh, said the metals could be coming from a variety of sources, including the fuel and raw material in the cement-making process, but stressed that the emissions are still below allowable limits.
“What’s important is that Lehigh’s emissions remain below the standards determined by state and federal regulators to be protective of human health and the environment — and the results of our stack tests demonstrated that this will be the case when adding raggertail to our fuel mix,” Brodt said in an email.
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When asked if the increases in heavy metals were coming from the raggertail, Brodt continued to say that metals can be contained in a number of fuel sources or raw materials. He added that “no one’s air emissions remain perfectly steady at all times.”
DEC said it cannot comment on individual questions, comments or concerns outside of this process, meaning when the comments have been reviewed and the permit has been approved or disapproved.
It had, however, prepared the draft permit for the public’s review after making “a tentative determination to approve a modification” of the existing air permit, according to the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin. The public comment period ended on March 15, and the DEC is currently reviewing those submitted before making a determination about the air permit.
“DEC rigorously reviews permit applications for all proposed projects in order to protect public health and the environment,” the agency said in an email.
It has been nearly five months since the cement company’s proposal to burn raggertail as an alternative fuel, in combination with coal or natural gas, was released to the public.
In that time, people’s questions and concerns led to the DEC extending the public comment period twice and to Lehigh holding an informational meeting.
Brodt has said he hopes the company has answered the public’s questions and Lehigh awaits DEC’s decision.