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Brick industry: EPA regulations could shutter plants

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Employees of the Hebron Brick Co. work on one stage of the brickmaking process. Companies like Hebron Brick could be adversely affected by new proposed EPA regulations of plant emissions.

HEBRON — For more than a century, the quiet town of Hebron has produced bricks that wind up in houses and commercial buildings nationwide.  Now, the Hebron Brick Co. and its counterparts nationwide are sharing concerns over Environmental Protection Agency proposals that could change regulations on emissions allowed.

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North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer was one of 52 members of Congress to sign a letter sent Wednesday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy expressing concern over the proposed standards for brick and structural clay plants.

Hebron Brick produces up to 130,000 bricks a day, and that brick is sold nationwide through distributors and retail locations, vice president of manufacturing Pete Polansky said.

The company employs about 50 people, mostly from Hebron and nearby Glen Ullin, he said.

Though such a strict rule is unlikely, Hebron Brick President Jeff Laliberte said if the EPA instituted a zero-tolerance policy on emissions, it would “very adversely affect” Hebron Brick’s employment.

The regulations limit the amount of “air toxics” brick and structural clay plants could emit.

Air toxics are pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health ailments, the EPA said in a statement. Brick industry production emits toxics like hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride.

Opponents worry the EPA won’t take into account the $100 million the brick industry already invested to comply with original 2003 regulations — a double whammy to an industry still recovering from a close-to-home housing crash.

“We urge EPA to fully consider how such measures would affect public health and the economic vitality of brick manufacturers, distributors, and communities that rely on them for their livelihood,” the letter stated.

The EPA is currently writing the rules and must finalize them by mid-December 2014.

Cramer said over his career, even before becoming a congressman, he has noticed a problem of new regulations not taking into account existing technology and efforts.

“What you end up doing sometimes in that case is oftentimes punishing the best players,” he said, “and you don’t do anything significant to improve quality and health.”

Built to comply

Hebron Brick built its current plant in 1999, but at the time knew what the 2003 regulations would be, so it was built to be in compliance.

“So now we would have to go back after a major expansion and redo it to comply with the new rulings,” Laliberte said.

Brick plants use “scrubbers” to filter out some emissions as heat-induced gasses flow from the kilns up through the smokestacks. These scrubbers can cost between $1 million and $8 million, and many plants bought new ones to comply with the 2003 regulations, Brick Industry Association President Gregg Borchelt said.

Buying new scrubbers for new regulations could be too much to handle for some brick manufacturers.

Overly strict regulations would “devastate” the industry and shut a third to a half of kilns in America, Laliberte said.

When asked about taking into account the rule’s economic effects, like on small businesses, the EPA said in its statement that it has been participating in a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel to hear from small businesses as the rule is developed.

Now, new regulations may require companies to buy more expensive scrubbers.

“This is really a strange circumstance for us,” Borchelt said. “… the Environmental Protection Agency had issued the rule, the industry started to comply, spent $100 million,” but then the rules were thrown out in court.

When the regulations were vacated by the courts in 2007, the EPA had to start fresh with the rulemaking process.

But the brick companies had already invested in new scrubbers when this happened, and Borchelt worries the agency will look at the existing efforts as the starting point and regulate from there, despite the investments made.

In their letter, the members of Congress express the same concern.

“It is problematic when an industry is subject to two consecutive rounds” of the rules, they wrote.

“Moreover, we are concerned that the lower emission levels attained from controls installed to comply with the 2003 vacated rule may be used as a baseline …”

“We have been double hit by this requirement,” Borchelt said, “and we’re worried that if the companies that put in those scrubbers now have to take them out and put in a different type that’re more effective … we’re gonna put companies out of business.”