Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Normally we're leery when local government officials fly to Washington, D.C., to lobby.

But the plight that might be facing Ash Grove Cement Co. later this

week - and by inevitable extension also facing Baker County - surpasses

normal by a goodly distance.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposes

mercury-emissions limits that don't include a subcategory that

acknowledges the higher-than-average levels of mercury in the limestone

that Ash Grove uses at its plant near Durkee, then the company probably

would have to close the factory.

The damage to Baker County's economy that would result is significant.

Plenty significant to justify County Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr.'s trip to the nation's capital last week, at a cost of about $1,000, to plead on Ash Grove's behalf.

Here's a couple of numbers to put into context what's at stake:

andbull; $9 million - Ash Grove's approximate annual payroll.

andbull; $1 million - Ash Grove's approximate annual property tax bill to Baker County. The county's general fund totals about $8 million.

Without Ash Grove's payment, it's almost inconceivable that the county could balance its budget without laying off workers and cutting services.

Yet as dire as the effects would be on the county's budget, the private sector economy would suffer more.

The multiplier effect - the notion that each dollar spent starts a sort of cascade effect that generates more economic activity - also works, unfortunately, in reverse.

Closing Ash Grove would delete millions of dollars from the county's economy.

We hope EPA acts reasonably. It's certainly reasonable for the agency to limit mercury emissions from cement plants. That should have happened decades ago, in fact.

The Durkee plant is the second-largest industrial source of airborne mercury in the nation. That's not acceptable.

Fortunately, Ash Grove agrees. Over the past two years the company has spent $20 million to install devices that, according to the company, cut the Durkee factory's mercury releases by 90 percent.

Yet the EPA, absent the subcategory, would require 99 percent.

90 percent is major progress.

Battering a rural economy, for want of a meager 9 percent more, is the opposite.