House GOP looks to curb EPA rules on concrete

WASHINGTON -- Last fall, amid growing signs of Republican gains in Congress, cement-industry lobbyists began meeting with GOP lawmakers to share their complaints about new Environmental Protection Agency rules that would sharply reduce mercury and other pollution from their plants.

A year later, the industry's efforts may be gaining traction.

This month, a Birmingham, Ala., cement manufacturer who says the new environmental rules have delayed his planned $350 million plant expansion, was House Speaker John Boehner's guest at President Obama's jobs speech to Congress. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the administration to evaluate the economic toll of new EPA rules on cement and other industries.

Next week, the House is set to take up legislation that would delay the cement rules by at least five years — part of a larger plan outlined recently by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to target 10 "job-destroying regulations."

"We're glad to see that somebody's noticing," said Andy O'Hare, vice president of the Portland Cement Association, a trade group that raised concerns with House Republicans last year. O'Hare says the new rules, aimed at sharply reducing mercury and other toxic emissions, would force the closure of 18 of nearly 100 U.S. plants and eliminate about 1,800 jobs.

Cement production fell sharply during the recession, leading to the loss of about 4,000 jobs, industry officials say. They say the new rules will drive business overseas once the economy improves.

"It's going to come from places like China, Venezuela and Thailand," said Robert Garbini, president of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. "And their cement plants are far, far less regulated."

The concrete trade group sent nearly 80% of its political contributions to Republican candidates in the 2010 elections that saw Republicans take control of the House.

"We're not giving money to Republicans because we don't like Democrats," Garbini said. "We are giving money to Republicans because they are more pro-business."

Overall, cement-related trade groups and six of the largest cement companies have donated $1.1 million to federal candidates and political parties since Jan. 1, 2009, according to a USA TODAY tally of campaign data.

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., co-chairman of the congressional "cement caucus," was a top recipient, getting nearly $30,000. Last week, Dent sponsored a House-passed amendment that added EPA regulations on cement plants to the list of rules that would have to be analyzed for their economic impact.

Dent spokesman Collin Long said the congressman's focus is on protecting jobs. Four cement plants operate in his eastern Pennsylvania district. "We're not confident there's a single plant in the country that would be able to reach the requirements," Long said.

The cement rules would require more than 90% reductions in mercury and other harmful emissions. Mercury can impair the brain development of fetuses and young children.

The EPA estimates it would cost the industry nearly $1 billion to clean up the air pollution but says the new standards could save up to 2,500 lives and avert thousands of asthma attacks when implemented in 2013. O'Hare said the compliance costs are much higher, about $3.5 billion.

The cement rules are part of a slew of environmental regulations targeted by GOP leaders. Last week, the House passed a bill that would delay EPA rules aimed at curbing mercury and smog-forming emissions from power plants. Other bills expected on the House floor in the coming weeks include measures that would delay or block regulations on emissions from industrial boilers and waste from coal-burning plants.

"I've never seen, nor has there ever been, a more anti-environmental Congress than this one in the House of Representatives," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"House Republicans are listening to the American people, who are asking, 'Where are the jobs?'" Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. "Stopping, or slowing, Washington Democrats' barrage of job-killing regulations is one of the things we can do to help get our economy moving again."

Some Democrats also have taken up the cause. Last week, two Republican and two Democratic senators introduced a bill to roll back the cement rules, but it faces dim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate.