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Ohio brickmakers seek demolition of new EPA rule

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Washington, October 10, 2016 | comments
Ohio brick manufacturing companies say costly new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air emission requirements will hit them like a proverbial ton of bricks, potentially causing bankruptcies if they're forced to comply.
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Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Sabrina Eaton
Published on October 11, 2016

WASHINGTON - Ohio brick manufacturing companies say costly new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air emission requirements will hit them like a proverbial ton of bricks, potentially causing bankruptcies if they're forced to comply.

Here's what it's all about.

What are the new regulations?
The Clean Air Act required the EPA to devise standards to control brick plant emissions of hazardous metals such as mercury, and gasses like hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride, that are "associated with a variety of acute and chronic health effects, including cancer."

The EPA predicts the standards it unveiled last year will reduce air pollution by roughly 375 tons annually when they go into effect in December 2018. The improvements will cost the industry $64.6 million in capital investments and $24.6 million for yearly compliance, EPA says.

The agency says it tried to be sensitive to industry concerns by developing flexible compliance options and making distinctions between requirements for small and large kilns, while still meeting Clean Air Act requirements.

What's the industry take?
Installing equipment mandated by the new regulations would require Alliance's Whitacre Greer to take out a $5 million loan, even though it won't reduce the brick company's costs, increase sales, improve products or boost the health of its 80 employees or nearby residents, says its president and CEO, Janet Kaboth.

"Compliance with these regulations threatens the continued existence of many small companies in our industry, including mine," Kaboth told a House Judiciary subcommittee in February, as her 100-year old family-owned firm sought congressional relief.

Belden Brick in Sugarcreek - the nation's largest family-owned brick company with 10 kilns and roughly 200 employees - says the rule might force the company to shut some of its kilns and lay off workers "while having little to no positive effect on the environment," President and CEO Robert Belden said last year.

The brick industry is barely halfway back to the sales it experienced before a nationwide construction slump and can't afford to spend money implementing standards that could be overturned, says Brick Industry Association chief operating officer Stephen Sears.

He says brick makers spent more than $100 million to comply with 2003 EPA emissions standards that were subsequently tossed out in court and replaced by last year's standards.

Just as the brick industry is challenging the new standards in court, environmental groups have filed their own lawsuit arguing rules aren't strict enough. Legal briefs filed by the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council say the rule "illegally and arbitrarily" prolongs public exposure to air pollution.

So far, the legal challenges haven't delayed the rule's implementation.

What do the brick manufacturers want?
Brick makers want Congress to pass legislation that would put the new standards on hold while they're weighed in court, so they don't spend more money satisfying EPA requirements that could be overturned.

The so-called Blocking Regulatory Interference from Closing Kilns Act of 2016  (Brick Act) sponsored by GOP Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta passed the House of Representatives in March by a 238 to 163 vote, but has not advanced in the U.S. Senate.

Cincinnati GOP Rep. Steve Chabot, who chairs the House Small Business Committee, urged support for Johnson's bill, arguing the rule would hurt small brick manufacturers who haven't yet recovered from the housing market's decline.

"While the regulation is being challenged in federal court, it just makes common sense to delay the compliance deadlines until that matter is resolved," Chabot said on the House of Representatives floor.

Democratic opponents of the bill say it's routine to challenge EPA rules and courts have the power to put regulations on hold while cases are underway. They said the law Johnson wants to pass would encourage frivolous challenges and extra appeals that would extend EPA's ultimate compliance deadlines.

What does the administration say?
A statement from the Office of Management and Budget says Johnson's bill "threatens the health of Americans by allowing more toxic air pollution," and that President Barack Obama's senior advisers would recommend that he veto it if the U.S. Senate approves it.

EPA hasn't taken a position on Johnson's legislation, though it says the benefits of the new rule will outweigh its costs. It estimates that for every month the standards are postponed, an extra 31 tons of toxic air pollution will spew into the atmosphere.

What's next?
Johnson hopes the U.S. Senate will take up his bill when Congress returns after elections. He says U.S. Senators with brick makers in their state are concerned about the problem.

"If we drive brick manufacturing companies out of business, where will we get bricks to build houses and buildings?" Johnson asks. "We don't import bricks. We make them here. If regulatory burdens make it impossible for brick manufacturers to earn a profit, that's not good for America."
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