BLOOMSDALE — The chief executive officer for Holcim Ltd.'s U.S. division on Friday called the company's $1 billion Missouri plant the most environmentally efficient cement plant in the country. If only the economy for cement companies would turn around.
An event to celebrate the August opening of the plant in Ste. Genevieve County took place Friday at the sprawling complex that sits amid rolling woods along the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of St. Louis.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, Gov. Jay Nixon and other lawmakers were among those who addressed those gathered in praise of the plant.
The new plant — the largest cement plant in the U.S. — will produce about 4 million metric tons of cement annually. It employs 250 people with a $20 million annual payroll. A study by Southeast Missouri State University determined the plant would generate more than $12 million in annual sales and income tax revenue for the state.
But before construction began in 2006, environmentalists raised concerns that the plant would worsen an air pollution problem in the St. Louis area that has already been noted as a problem by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Several environmental groups tried for years to stop the plant. Opposition was dropped in the mid-2000s after the Missouri Department of Natural Resources granted permits. The company agreed to spend $3 million on habitat restoration and education programs, set aside 2,200 acres as a buffer area, and limit active quarrying to no more than 200 acres of land at any time.
Bernard Terver, CEO of Holcim (US), a division of Switzerland-based Holcim Ltd., said that the plant is proving to be an environmental trendsetter for the industry.
"We have built this plant with the best available technology," Terver said. "We monitor all of our emissions. We can say it is the most environmentally efficient plant in the U.S."
Plant manager Jeff Ouhl said environmental testing since the plant opened indicates fears were unfounded.
"We can say we have met all of our limits and, in almost all cases, were well below where the permit limits were set," Ouhl said.
Benjamin lauded the environmental effort. "The carbon footprint is very small," she said.
Messages seeking comment from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment were not returned. A DNR spokeswoman said she had no information about emissions from the plant. DNR has said emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other particulate matter were not expected to affect air pollution in the St. Louis area.
The plant opened at an inopportune time: Demand for cement has declined in recent years because of the economic downturn. Holcim recently closed plants in Clarksville, Mo., and Dundee, Mich., and stopped production last year at plants in Mason City, Iowa, and Artesian, Miss.
Experts expected things to improve in 2010, but Terver said the company is still awaiting the rebound. "Now we are in June and I think it will be 2011," he said.
Last month, Holcim, the world's second-largest cement maker, reported a net loss of $62.5 million for the first quarter, though sales increased by about 5 percent. Part of the loss was due to a tax charge related to restructuring in North America.
Holcim chose the Missouri site because of its central U.S. location and its proximity to nearby limestone quarries that contain at least a 100-year supply to feed the cement kiln, Terver said. The easy access to the river allows the plant to provide cement to a market that stretches from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.