"This person right here has cancer. His granddaughter has cancer."
Jeff Galemore pointed to house after house as he steered his white pickup through a tree-lined neighborhood in Chanute, Kansas, a town of 9,000 on the state's southeastern prairie.
"This gal has cancer," the 53-year-old oilfield worker continued. "The one across the street from where I live has cancer. Two houses south of me has cancer. But they repeatedly tell us there's not a problem."
Three miles north and east, part-time Lutheran minister and pecan grower Ken Lott wondered why it had been so quiet on his rural Chanute farm. "I used to have bullfrogs out here all the time," explains Lott, 71. It's been at least seven years since he's heard the melodic croaking.
At the opposite end of town, retired railroad worker Dale Stout, 80, lamented the deaths of seven hedge trees that were almost as old as him. "They planted it after the dust bowl," Stout said of the sturdy row of trees used as windbreaks and natural fences. "You don't just up and kill a hedge tree."
Stout, Lott and Galemore are worried that emissions from a century-old cement plant in Chanute are responsible for the human and environmental damage around them. They are among many Americans who may have cause for concern: Two decades after a Democratic Congress and a Republican president sought to bring under control the emissions of nearly 200 dangerous chemicals, millions of people continue to be exposed to them in the air they breathe.
But the object of citizen concern here — the Ash Grove Cement Co.’s plant — is different. It is not one of the 1,600 chemical plants, oil refineries, cement kilns and other facilities considered "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor is it one of the facilities on an internal EPA "watch list" obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR that includes serious or chronic offenders with violations not formally and promptly addressed by regulators.
In fact, state and federal regulators express no concerns about the plant. It stays within limits on emissions, they say, and has not run afoul of the law. It is, by all appearances, a good corporate citizen. “We have a standard and we comply with it,” said a company vice president, Curtis Lesslie. Karl Brooks, the EPA regional administrator with authority in Kansas concurred: “The plant is in compliance,” he said.
It just happens to have permission to pollute.
Federal rules establish a unique class of polluter for cement kilns, like the massive one in Chanute, that burn hazardous waste for fuel. The law allows them to emit greater amounts of some toxic chemicals into the air than the hazardous-waste incinerators specially designed to burn the very same chemicals—including industrial solvents, aluminum-plant waste, and other toxic leftovers from the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and oil.
When operating at capacity, the Chanute plant has discharged into the air more than 500 pounds of mercury a year, though the economic downturn has cut operations and mercury emissions the last three years. Mercury is one of the nearly 200 toxic substances singled out in the bipartisan effort to toughen the Clean Air Act two decades ago, and the EPA still struggles to limit it. Unlike hazardous waste incinerators, cement kilns built or rebuilt before 2005 can release 43 percent more lead and cadmium, as much as twice the hydrocarbons, close to four times the hydrogen chloride and chlorine gas, and twice the particulate matter, according to EPA standards. Altogether, 13 kilns in six states operate under those standards and can emit toxics at those levels.
Three newer or upgraded kilns, including an Ash Grove plant in Arkansas, can emit even more toxic pollutants under EPA standards — 15 times the mercury as hazardous waste incinerators, 18 times the lead and cadmium, twice the arsenic, beryllium and chromium, five times the hydrocarbons, more than four times the hydrogen chloride and chlorine gas, and four times the particulates.
Such elevated levels are not harmful, said EPA official Brooks. State and federal standards are “set with a margin of public health and safety.” Mike Benoit, spokesman for the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition, said the limits are far more stringent “than what is necessary to protect human health and the environment.” Levels involved are small. “We're talking about nanograms. We're talking about micrograms,” said Benoit. “Millionths of a gram — billionths of a gram."
Downwind of the Chanute plant, some people aren’t easily reassured. They find it hard to fathom regulations that would allow large amounts of hazardous pollution. Monitoring is neither independent nor capable of detecting most toxins leaving the plant. Meanwhile, proof of harm in the community is elusive: As is often the case, there’s not any evidence that links the harm people perceive to the source they suspect. And, as in many other places with a polluter as a neighbor, there are indications of coziness between industry and government that makes average citizens wonder whether they are being heard or protected.
In Chanute, anxieties over a government-approved, toxic form of pollution that may be fouling the air, harming health, and poisoning the soil and water, have exposed deep divisions in a community that has long valued the century-old company on the edge of town as an employer, benefactor and source of revenue.
‘This is your human life’
It was supposed to be an informational meeting for concerned citizens at a popular park pavilion in downtown Chanute. Jeff Galemore, his five middle-aged siblings and his parents organized the event after deciding to take their concerns to their neighbors. On an October day last year, they fanned out across town, tacking notices to bulletin boards, dropping them on doorsteps and stuffing them into mailboxes. The flyers announced the gathering of the new “Chanute Environmental Rights Group.”
The Galemores describe themselves as conservative Republicans and they align with candidates and causes not considered sympathetic to tough environmental regulation. Jeff Galemore, who works with his dad in the family oil business, recently posted a sign on his front lawn announcing a meeting of a local Tea Party group. His sister, Selene Hummer, 51, owns a home decorating store and proudly displays a "Sarah Palin 2012" bumper sticker on the rear window of her pickup.
"We're not really tree-hugging liberals," said Hummer. "But when your environment becomes damaged or you feel that you're being contaminated — I don't care what party you're in — this is your human life."
How did it all start? “We noticed mold on the houses,” said Hummer. "We started noticing that people couldn’t breathe. We started noticing the high rates of cancer and we started thinking there was only one direction it could be coming from.”
The Galemores were already well-known in Chanute. One brother sits on the city commission; another is a county commissioner. The rest of the family also is active in local politics. With eight businesses between them — including a lumber yard, the oil wells, a pharmacy, a printing shop and the home decorating store — the family’s concerns usually had more to do with taxes and government spending.
They initially focused on Ash Grove because of the company's relationship with the city, including a multi-million dollar tax abatement and an industrial revenue bond issued on the company's behalf. That led them to the plant's use of hazardous waste for fuel — and questions about whether it might be harmful to health.
They were nervous and excited about that meeting in October, where they hoped to find out how many neighbors shared their concerns.
The family raised $1,000 to fly in an expert — chemist Neil Carman, a former inspector for the Texas Air Control Board and an adviser to the Sierra Club. Carman has focused on cement kilns in Texas and had even submitted comments to regulators challenging Ash Grove's first hazardous waste permit in 1996.
The Galemores and Carman found the park pavilion teeming with dozens of people, filling most of the folding chairs and lining the room’s perimeter. Most were not there to listen. Their T-shirts read "We are Chanute" and "Real Families, Kansas Jobs." Some were Ash Grove employees and their families. Others were community supporters of the plant.
There was heckling when the Galemores or a few allies criticized Ash Grove and voiced concern for their health and the environment. Carman, intimidated by the jeering crowd, remained in his seat, silent.
Recalling that day, Selene Hummer’s smile morphed into hard lines. “We were outnumbered but we stood our ground."
That November, an election campaign involving one of the Galemore brothers grew bitter. His opponents merged the political issues and the environmental effort. Ads and letters in The Chanute Tribune accused the family of trying to shut down the plant. The Galemores were labeled "the Chanute al-Qaida" and the family said there were boycotts of every Galemore business. Even friends started to shun them, the Galemores said.
Elsie Galemore, the family matriarch, said she never felt unsafe in Chanute until the day after the meeting, when threatening letters overflowed the family’s mailbox, and spilled into the yard.
The Galemores blame that fierce reaction on the powerful links between the city and the company. In addition to its $7.4 million annual payroll, Ash Grove's charitable foundation contributed $1 million to the new sports complex at Chanute High School. The company is the single biggest customer for the city's municipally-owned power company, paying $14 million a year in electric bills.
"They've really been a strong pillar in the community for many, many years," said Chanute city manager J.D. Lester. "They pay a very good wage … and they've been a very good corporate citizen.“ When asked if he thinks Chanute is polluted, Lester answered with a flat "no." "If I truly felt like it was unhealthy to live in Chanute and an industry was making problems," Lester said, "I'd do something about it because that's my job."
"I do not have a high level of concern because I trust that the regulators … do their job effectively," Lester added. "And I just don't, at this time, feel like that threat exists."
The use of cement kilns to burn hazardous waste dates back to the days of waste dumping disasters such as Love Canal in New York and Times Beach in Missouri in the 1970s and 1980s. Burial of hazardous waste was abandoned and incineration was the only alternative. Specially designed incinerators took time to build, and cement kilns already operated at the kind of heat — 3,000 degrees — needed to destroy hazardous materials. Meanwhile, the industry could replace expensive oil and coal by using the hazardous waste as fuel. And firms generating hazardous waste would pay the cement companies to take the waste, transforming fuel costs into revenues.
By the 1980s, hazardous waste was used for fuel at the rate of a million tons a year, according to the Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition. The practice was largely unregulated at first; Ash Grove's Chanute kiln became the first in the country to receive a hazardous waste permit, in 1996. Today, a dozen cement plants in eight states have 16 kilns burning hazardous waste. Then and now, the industry and the EPA refer to the process as recycling — because cement kilns and other industrial facilities "recover" the energy value in the waste when it's burned.
Pollutants include metals such as mercury and lead, which either vaporize or escape as particulate matter, and carbon compounds that are incompletely burned. In the atmosphere such pollutants create new compounds like dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This “highly toxic cocktail,” as chemist Neil Carman puts it, contains “some of the most dangerous substances that we produce.”
Amid the new demand for hazardous waste disposal, Congress carved out regulations for specific types of facilities so that hazardous waste incinerators and cement kilns burning hazardous waste would each have their own emissions standards. The industries argued that the facilities have different purposes and operating conditions and shouldn't be regulated identically. Kilns are far larger than incinerators and produce cement as a product. Hazardous waste incinerators just incinerate.
But the decision to regulate the two types of facilities differently is “a loophole for the cement industry," said James Pew, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice. "The problem with cement kilns that burn hazardous waste is that they're not designed to burn hazardous waste."
Some environmental groups and people in Chanute are concerned that the differences in regulation mean emissions from Ash Grove’s cement kiln can drift over the community, with consequences for health that range from respiratory and skin problems to special issues of exposure for children.
The mercury emissions from the Chanute kiln are especially troublesome to environmental consultant Craig Volland, who advises the Kansas Sierra Club on air pollution issues and also helps the Galemores navigate state and federal regulations and records.
Volland said that the Chanute plant was the second largest emitter of mercury in Kansas in 2004, one of the years the mercury emissions reached 500 pounds. "That would compare to the 170 pounds of mercury a year at a major coal-fired power plant," Volland said.
Mercury travels great distances, persists in the environment and accumulates over time. EPA is so concerned about increasing mercury concentrations across the country that it has proposed tougher emission standards for coal-fired power plants and cement kilns. The agency wants a 92 percent reduction in mercury emissions at cement kilns alone.
"Mercury can damage children's developing brains," the EPA stated in an August, 2010 news release about the proposed cement kiln standards. "Mercury in the air eventually deposits into water, where it changes into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish."
"In many freshwater lakes in the United States, we've already reached the threshold of harm of methylmercury in fish tissue," added Volland. "So any additional mercury that's emitted from any facility … has the potential to increase the health impact."
If enacted, the EPA's new mercury standards for cement kilns would not apply to kilns that burn hazardous waste because of the unique standards and regulatory process that govern each type of facility.
Without more of a ‘scientific basis,’ regulators unable to act
Ash Grove's mercury emissions worried the Galemores and others in Chanute, as did the seemingly permissive emissions standards for cement kilns burning hazardous waste. So they urged state and federal regulators to conduct independent testing of air, water, sediment and fish.
"We have no other protection than you people," pleaded family patriarch and oil driller John Galemore during sometimes testy meetings. "You are our front line and our defense. And all we're asking is that you assure us with testing that we're safe."
State and federal regulators didn't embrace such concerns — and neither did some of the Galemores’ neighbors. When the family traveled to EPA's regional headquarters to discuss possible testing, Ash Grove supporters rallied employees, their families and company champions. A busload of people wearing the same "We are Chanute" T-shirts picketed and marched in front of the building while the Galemores and their allies met with regulators inside.
The protestors were eventually invited in to participate. Officials with the EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) tried to explain the complex emissions standards and how they assure safety of people downwind. The standards are arcane and hard to understand, except perhaps by the small circle of regulatory officials, industry executives and lobbyists, scientists and lawyers fluent in the nuances. Those standards establish a complicated formula based on the precise mixture of hazardous wastes fed into the kiln, operating conditions of the kiln, emissions measurements during test burns, and computer modeling. The result is a prediction of expected exposure downwind of specific kinds of people in specific places.
As long as Ash Grove follows the formula, the regulators explained, the plant is deemed in compliance and considered safe.
But the standards allow more emissions of some toxics from kilns than from hazardous waste incinerators. They permit what adds up to significant amounts of mercury — which the EPA is trying to come close to phasing out at cement kilns that do not burn hazardous waste. And the standards were based on what the cleanest plants achieved with existing technology — not on what might be desirable or even possible with new pollution control methods.
The Galemores pointed out that the only real-time, independent monitoring of actual emissions in Chanute involved a single detector a couple of miles south of the plant on the roof of KDHE's regional office. It measures particulates, extremely tiny particles of dust, acids, organic chemicals and metals that "affect the heart and lungs and can cause serious health effects" once inhaled, according to EPA. But it doesn’t pick up eight other toxic chemicals and gases that are meant to be kept under control at incinerators and kilns.
The monitor is not even in an ideal location for detecting particulates from Ash Grove. State environmental officials point out that its purpose was not intended to track emissions from Ash Grove. Because of the way winds tend to shift in the area, the monitor often won’t detect what’s released from the plant.
NPR asked EPA's Brooks to reconcile the plant's mercury emission levels with the agency's clearly stated — and well-publicized — goal of reducing mercury pollution at cement kilns and power plants. In his answer, Brooks focused only on the existing rules and did not acknowledge any conflict with EPA's strong desire to cut mercury emissions dramatically. "Every test that's been done, every inspection that's been done,” Brooks said, “verifies that there is full compliance with every relevant part of the permit. Including the mercury part.”
Coziness with industry?
The Galemores persisted. They wanted independent testing and they didn't ease up on the pressure. State environmental officials responded at first by updating a regional health study prompted by community concerns after Ash Grove first received its first hazardous waste permit 15 years ago.
The review might have been reassuring; its analysis of cancer and hospital records found no excessive cancer rates in the region. But the Galemores said the study may have missed some cancers because some local people travel to distant hospitals in Wichita, Kansas City and Houston for treatment.
The KDHE study did find a slightly higher than expected rate of asthma cases that required hospital visits. That fit pharmacist Nick Galemore's anecdotal experience.
"We see a high volume of nebulizer medication, inhalers, lots of lung issues here," especially for children, Galemore reports. "I believe there's something that's not being detected or not being looked into."
In a separate study in 2006, the Kansas environmental agency found an elevated level of mercury in a fish sample taken in the creek that runs right past the plant.
This summer, the agencies finally agreed to begin testing air, water, sediment and fish in the Chanute area. The community is awaiting results, but the Galemores and others remain skeptical. They worry that a misplaced monitor or misinterpreted sample will jeopardize the accuracy of the effort. And they’re bothered by a perceived coziness between Ash Grove and state regulators.
Ash Grove vice president Lesslie was once a state regulator himself. In fact, he was the state official who drafted the company's first hazardous waste permit in 1996. Lesslie later worked elsewhere for seven years, with a consulting firm, before joining Ash Grove in 2007.
NPR also discovered in state records a recent email exchange involving Lesslie and William Bider, the Kansas director of waste management. In August of last year, when EPA announced its proposed new emissions standards for cement kilns, Bider sent the EPA news release to Lesslie for his analysis.
Lesslie responded, noting "extreme impacts on the industry."
There’s nothing unusual about a regulator seeking comment from a potentially affected company. But Bider wrote another email to two colleagues, including one heavily involved in Ash Grove matters, according to other agency emails and documents reviewed by NPR.
"I thought you might be interested in reading this note from Curtis Lesslie in response to another major EPA air rule that will help put our cement plants out of business or at a minimum result in severe inflation," Bider wrote. "EPA is out of control as far as I'm concerned."
Such emails don’t surprise environmental consultant Craig Volland. "I think it's crossing the line a bit for a manager in KDHE to take the position that this is not what [EPA] should be doing," Volland maintained. "That said, KDHE is always under enormous pressure from the politicians in Kansas, who are very conservative. … [Regulators are] always being pressured to be accommodating to the industries that they regulate."
John Mitchell, Bider’s boss as director of the environment division at KDHE, was not happy about the email when it was provided by NPR, but he did not seem alarmed.
"It disappoints me to see our staff putting something like that in writing," Mitchell said. “It appears to me that Bill has indicated that this is his personal opinion but our position certainly is that if changes come down the pike, we will consider those … as we regulate the businesses in Kansas. I have no doubt in my mind.”
NPR then asked Mitchell why concerned people in Chanute would trust KDHE enforcement if a key state regulator is so openly critical of EPA, the state agency’s enforcement partner.
"We don't always see eye-to-eye on everything," Mitchell responded, in describing the KDHE relationship with EPA. "I don't know what else I can really say on that front."
All EPA's Karl Brooks would say about the email is that "KDHE has held up its end of that partnership bargain."
Brooks also predicted that the new testing in Chanute will allay fears in the community.
"You'd like to make sure that everybody affected by emissions from a permitted facility understands what's being emitted and has some confidence that the permit is doing what it's designed to do," Brooks says. "That would be the hope, that the evidence that's supplied to people will give them that confidence."
State regulators also doubt the new testing will justify the concern and pressure they're getting from the Galemores and others in Chanute.
“We’ve done far more here in Chanute to investigate the concerns that these folks have had than we typically do based upon the lack of concrete documentation that there’s an existing problem,” Mitchell says. "If we really don't find some sound scientific basis to delve deeper, it's very hard for us to do more."
Activists ‘tore this town apart’
Back in Chanute, the Galemores focus on the rail cars of hazardous waste that roll right through Chanute's quaint, red-brick downtown on the way to the plant. They show visitors plastic bags filled with rusted, palm-sized flakes collected from their yards. They point to fine white dust on their pickups and black soot on their homes. And they tick off a misery list of illnesses, wondering whether it's all connected to Ash Grove's cement kiln and the hazardous waste it uses for fuel.
“They’ll never be satisfied with any answer,” said David Orr, who challenged one of the Galemore brothers in a county commission election. Orr had 300 of the ‘We are Chanute’ T-shirts printed for the first meeting at the park. “When I saw the flyer for the meeting, I decided to do something,” he said. “They tore this town apart, [and] somebody had to stand up to them.”
Despite their determination, the Galemores show signs of weariness. "It is not good for somebody to continually be battling, and be battling, and be battling," Hummer said at her parents' dining room table, which was covered with file folders, newspaper clippings, photographs, maps, boxes of documents and copies of vicious emails and letters.
Some family members now talk about selling their businesses and leaving the town they've called home for more than 40 years. Hummer has even asked environmental activists to name unpolluted places that might make good new hometowns.
Some Ash Grove supporters might be relieved if the family left. One of the nastier letters that littered Elise Galemore's porch after the contentious meeting last year suggested the entire family pick up and leave the country.
"This would be a perfect solution for the Galemore family and entourage," the anonymous letter said. "Wouldn’t it be great to leave the imperfections of Chanute and its citizens behind … and relish the perfection of Galemoreville in the Greek Islands?"
"It's getting real close," Hummer says with a sigh, "where we're now saying 'enough.'”
This story was reported by freelancer Sarah Harris for the Center for Public Integrity and Slate, and by Howard Berkes, NPR rural affairs correspondent.