Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The federal government has managed to make the possible closure of one of Baker County's larger private employers seem downright merciful.

Ash Grove Cement Co.'s plant near Durkee, 27 miles southeast of Baker City, employs about 116 people.

The plant has an annual payroll of about $9 million. It's also the county's second-biggest taxpayer, putting $727,000 into the county's coffers last fiscal year.

In other words, Ash Grove is a vital part of Baker County economy - more so since the county recently endured its highest August jobless rate (9.2 percent) in a quarter-century.

But what if 32,500 people have to die prematurely to keep the cement plant going?

That's basically the choice the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests is at stake with a bill that would overturn federal mercury emissions limits for cement plants that are slated to take effect in September 2013.

EPA estimates that if that bill becomes law, along with related legislation affecting incinerators and boilers, then 32,500 Americans will die prematurely due to the pollution.

The House of Representatives wasn't persuaded by this speculation. It passed the cement plant bill, 262-161.

But the bill probably is doomed in the Senate.

None of this is necessary.

EPA should have exempted Ash Grove from the pending mercury limits. The company voluntarily spent $20 million to install filters which, since they started operating in July 2010, have slashed the Durkee plant's mercury emissions by 90 percent.

But because the plant uses locally quarried limestone that contains abnormally high levels of naturally occurring mercury, Ash Grove's state-of-the-art equipment can't meet the EPA's pending rule, which mandates a reduction of about 98 percent.

We don't oppose limits on mercury emissions from cement plants. Some level of reduction in this pollution is long overdue, in fact.

But the EPA's clumsy approach - complete with scare tactics such as that estimate of 32,500 early deaths - might prove disastrous for Ash Grove's Durkee plant.

Worse, the EPA's pending limits could damage not only the nation's economy but also - ironically, given the agency's name - its environment.

If few cement plants can comply, then America probably will have to buy cement from countries such as China that have lax pollution laws, or none at all.

Foreign suppliers are no doubt eager to fill those orders. And they'll toss in for free the airborne mercury, some of which likely will end up here.

America, meanwhile, will be left with neither the jobs nor the cleaner air and water. Thanks, EPA, for politicizing speculation