What will it take to get Cemex, Boulder’s biggest polluter, to change?

On Friday, Good Neighbors Lyons, a community group, organized a meeting to share input with the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission about renewing an operating permit for the Cemex cement manufacturing plant in Lyons. Cemex, a Mexico-based cement manufacturer, is one of the largest polluters in the state.

The $14 billion corporation is on the list of the top 100 polluters in the Nation. Cemex’s plant in Lyons is the largest polluter in Boulder County.

Even so, if you drive by Cemex, you probably wouldn’t even know it was there. It sits just off Highway 66 — the road from Lyons to Longmont — but it’s surrounded by man-made hills that Cemex constructed to keep the plant largely out of sight.

The plant dumps about 350,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year — about seven times more than the second largest polluter in the county, which is the CU power plant which emits about 50,000 tons of carbon into the air. Only one representative of the Air Quality Control Commission — or AQCC — was able to attend Friday’s Zoom meeting.

The plant dumps about 350,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year — about seven times more than the second largest polluter in the county, which is the CU power plant which emits about 50,000 tons of carbon into the air

Commissioner Martha Rudolph moderated more than two hours of public comment. KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon was there and is here to tell us more.
Listen:

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    Untitled Alexis Kenyon

Jackie Sedley: Alexis, let’s clear it up – is it Seh-mex or SEA-mex.

Alexis Kenyon: Well, people said it both ways, but the company representatives called it Cih-mex, so I am going with that!

Jackie Sedley: Great, Cemex it is. Let’s talk about Friday’s meeting. Who was there, and what were the big themes of those who spoke?

Alexis Kenyon: For a Friday evening meeting that started at 4 p.m., there was a pretty impressive turnout. I counted close to 100 people on the Zoom call — and more than two hours of public comment from Lyons residents, air quality experts, and climate advocates.

Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett testified, and Lyons Mayor Hollie Rogin spoke on behalf of the Lyons trustees. Boulder State Representative Junie Joseph spoke.

The Boulder Health Department started the meeting with a pretty scathing report they submitted to the Air Quality Control Commission, outlining some major changes needed before they believed the AQCC should reissue the Cemex Title V operating permit.

And generally, the comments followed much of what the Boulder Health Department outlined – so, they pointed out Cemex’s outdated facility, and how the company is operating on permits that were established when the facility was built back in the ’60s – these are permits that don’t meet Clean Air Act standards, and that they continue to operate with these permits by what many consider is paying to pollute. What I mean by that is it’s cheaper for Cemex to pay fines than to update their equipment.

So many of the commenters asked that the Air Quality Control Commission substantially modify these permits with more meaningful fines, get rid of loopholes, create actionable consequences, and change the self-reporting system. A lot of people who spoke said the AQCC should deny the operating permit altogether.

Jackie Sedley: Okay, before we get into the actual permitting and how that works, for listeners who don’t know, what is Cemex, and why are they such big polluters?

Alexis Kenyon: Right, so, Cemex’s product and the way they make it are both problematic. In a nutshell, Cemex is making a very messy substance with a very outdated facility.

In a nutshell, Cemex is making a very messy substance with a very outdated facility.

So, the Cemex plant in Lyons is 54 years old, and the substance they are making is something called Portland cement, a very light dust that acts as a binding agent in cement.

Cement is made out of three ingredients: water, gravel, and a binding agent – the substance that makes everything stick together. In Cemex’s case, the binding agent they create is Portland cement.

And for people who might be familiar, when you open a bag of cement, it’s like when you open a bag of flour. If you jostle it at all, this cloud of stuff comes out of it. So with Cemex cement, that cloud of very light dust is the Portland cement. That’s what they produce.

Portland cement is made out of raw materials including limestone, clay, and shale. All these materials, up until last year, Cemex used to mine from mountains around Lyons.

photo of a fugitive dust event at the Cemex plant in Lyons, Colorado via Good Neighbors Lyons

So they mined the materials and then processed them at their plant. This means they get grounded and then baked in a kiln and then grounded again. Boulder County commissioners voted they could no longer mine these materials in September of 2022.

A lot of people were hoping that they would move the whole business somewhere else, but instead, Cemex has now just been trucking in the raw materials to Lyons, processing them, and then trucking them out.

It’s actually doubled traffic since last year, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

And so you imagine, if you are producing something so light that it can escape when you just open a bag, this dust, when you create it, gets into the air and it’s extremely toxic.

But for people who live in Lyons, this dust is not just something that they have to imagine — this is something that people in Lyons say they see all the time. They call it fugitive dust events. I want to play you a clip from Edward King, a Lyons resident, describing one of these fugitive dust events.

Edward King: I’ve seen the fugitive dust thing personally, many times when I drive in from Longmont. A couple of months ago, it looked like the town of Lyons was on fire. The amount of dust that was coming up looked like, oh my gosh, it’s the Marshall Fire now happening in Lyons. Luckily, as I drove further, I realized it was just a huge plume coming off this plant, and only because that’s better than the town of Lyons burning down. But wow, it’s dramatic. If you live here, if you’re around this, you could see it, you could feel it, you could smell it, you could breathe it.

A couple of months ago, it looked like the town of Lyons was on fire. The amount of dust that was coming up looked like, oh my gosh, it’s the Marshall Fire now happening in Lyons. Luckily, as I drove further, I realized it was just a huge plume coming off this plant, and only because that’s better than the town of Lyons burning down. But wow, it’s dramatic. If you live here, if you’re around this, you could see it, you could feel it, you could smell it, you could breathe it.
photo submitted of fugitive dust event in Lyons, Colorado via Good Neighbors Lyons .

Jackie Sedley That was Edward King discussing fugitive dust clouds in Lyons coming off the Cemex cement plant. Wow, so, tell me about this Title V permit. What is a Title V permit and what did people at the meeting say they wanted from it?

Alexis Kenyon: Right, so a Title V permit basically outlines how much Cemex can pollute and the things it needs to do to control pollution. And because a lot of Cemex pollution is coming from this dust they are creating – the biggest thing the permit outlines is what the plant needs to do to make sure this dust doesn’t escape into the atmosphere.

But an interesting thing is – not only is Cemex producing a dusty product, this Portland cement, getting the dust in and out of the facility is actually creating a dust problem all of its own because the plant, even though it’s manufacturing cement, has dirt roads that huge cement trucks are driving in and out of all day. Boulder County Health Department pointed out in their complaint that, at the very least, Cemex should pave their roads.

But more importantly, the permit is dealing with the dust Cemex is physically manufacturing. So the Title V permit requires Cemex to do things like cover the dust when they move it around the facility.

photo submitted too Good Neighbors of Lyons of a fugitive dust event coming off the Cemex cement manufacturing plant in Lyons, Colorado.

I want to play a comment from Hunter Lovins who says she can see the Cemex facility from her office window on St. Vrain Road and regardless if they are reporting violations or how they are moving dust – which by the way – are supposed to be self-reported – she can see when violations happen.

Hunter Lovins: I can see the CEMEX plant out my north window. I can see when they’re not in compliance. I can see the dust storms. You heard about the regular citations for violations, as recently as this December.

I have a chronic cough. It started when I moved to this location. My white corral fences are crusted in black sludge. If that’s going onto my fences, what’s going in my lungs?

I can see the CEMEX plant out my north window. I can see when they’re not in compliance. I can see the dust storms. You heard about the regular citations for violations, as recently as this December.I have a chronic cough. It started when I moved to this location. My white corral fences are crusted in black sludge. If that’s going onto my fences, what’s going in my lungs?

Jackie Sedley: So, Lovins says she developed a chronic cough. Tell me about the health impacts of this dust.

Alexis Kenyon: Right. One thing that a lot of people who live near the plant or in Lyons brought up is that they suffer from asthma or strange coughs. And the big problem with all this dust in the air is – it’s not just regular dust – this Portland cement dust is super toxic.

Cemex was fined in September for releasing dust that contained mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide.

Along with this being wildly incompliant with the Clean Air Act, these chemicals are toxic for humans – breathing this stuff is linked to asthma, autism, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s. There was a diabetes researcher who spoke about the increasingly body of evidence linking these compounds to type 2 diabetes.

I want to play a clip from Leslie Goldstrum, a longtime environmental activist in Colorado.

Leslie Goldstrum: We have a plant that’s 54 years old. I mean, this is back in the time of typewriters and, you know, there was no such thing even as CDs or anything like that. And they just have been out of compliance basically perpetually. So the real question here is whether they should get a permit at all. And there’s no reason to believe that they should get their permit renewed when they have such a horrible record of non-compliance. I am trained as a biochemist and a chemist, and I’m chemically sensitive due to some exposures that I had early in my career. There are many wonderful things about Boulder County, but I can’t enjoy them because our air quality is so terrible. And just to continue this status quo of issuing a permit, then checking noncompliance, and giving a little fine is completely inadequate. I’m begging of the entire commission and of the staff, you’ve got a long checklist of things that need to be upgraded, but really, I don’t see a reason why this permit should be renewed.

Jackie Sedley: Wait but why would AQCC renew the permit? Were there any people who spoke in favor?

Alexis Kenyon: Yes, there were a few people who spoke in favor of reissuing the permit — mostly employees who work at the plant and Cemex is a big employer. According to the company, the plant provides about 200 jobs. Although that number is disputed. Lyons Mayor Hollie Rogin told me she thinks it’s closer to 125 jobs, the majority of whom commute to Lyons from Weld County.

At the meeting, a family member of an employee who does live in Lyons spoke. Rachel Tilson said she is a 5th-generation Lyons resident. Her husband works at Cemex. They have kids including one who is currently in college. Tilson said, if Cemex were to shut down, they wouldn’t be able to afford her daughter’s tuition.

Rachel Tilson: This permit is our livelihood, and if it doesn’t. get renewed we will be forced to leave Lyons because we will not be able to afford to live here. As to where it has not negatively affected our health. And we’ve been here for generations, so I can say that we are all healthy people. I have asthma, I have never had an adverse reaction from the plant, and I have grown up in Lyons.

Alexis Kenyon: So this is a complicated issue. Cemex has been around for years. Like any big company, they provide jobs, they provide cement – they give money to community groups and many people who live around Lyons or in Lyons directly benefit from all this.

I do want to add. One woman, Kathleen Cassidy, said, you know, none of this makes up for Cemex being an overall bad actor in Lyons.

This is a multi-billion-dollar company. They get fined, you know, these little peanut fines, $357,000 compared to a billion-dollar company is nothing.

Kathleen Cassidy: I’ve been at previous meetings back in 2022, I guess, regarding Cemex and Dow Flats, and at that time, Cemex said it wasn’t financially practical for them to put money into upgrading their old plant. And their actions have supported that. This is a multi-billion-dollar company. They get fined, you know, these little peanut fines, $357,000 compared to a billion-dollar company is nothing. And they’re not, these fines aren’t doing anything practical as far as changes at this plant. It should be shut down until it complies or just shut down completely.

Jackie Sedley: Hmm so what are the next steps?

Alexis Kenyon: So, Commissioner Rudolph said she will bring all the comments back to the members of the AQCC, and then it’s up to the CPHE, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to approve, deny or modify the permit before Feb. 6.  Then, the EPA then has 45 days to respond (Mar. 22). In the meantime, Cemex can continue to operate as usual and there is no timeline when the final permit will be complete in this process.

Jackie Sedley: Well, we will keep an eye on that. Thanks for the update, Alexis.

Alexis Kenyon: Thank you, Jackie.

Picture of Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.
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