News, music, movies, events & restaurants in Santa Cruz, California from Metro Santa Cruz weekly


home | metro santa cruz index | columns | nūz

Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

The Cemex plant in Davenport could have been unwittingly releasing chromium 6 into the air for the last seven years.

The Things We Don't Know We Don't Know

The carcinogenic toxin chromium 6 may have been unwittingly produced at the Cemex plant in Davenport for the last seven years. Even scarier, it's "highly possible" that chromium 6 continues to be produced across the country as an accidental, previously unknown byproduct of the cement-making process, according to Ed Kendig, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District.

"I don't know how wide this is," says Kendig. "My guess is, this word, this discovery, has not spread around the country as effectively as of yet, but I'm not sure."

Chromium 6, also known as chrome 6 or hexavalent chromium, is the same toxic substance Erin Brockovich rallied against after it was discovered in the drinking water in the Southern California towns of Hinkley and Willits. The air pollution control board decided to test for chromium 6 in Davenport after inspectors discovered it in concentrations up to 10 times normal atmospheric levels outside the TXI Riverside Cement plant in February; it was not until that discovery that the scientific community knew chromium 6 could be accidentally manufactured in the making of cement.

"Chrome 6 being in substantial quantities in clinker dust from cement plants was unknown until discovered in L.A. earlier this year," says Kendig, using the term for the material that's heated, then crushed to produce cement. "I don't think that Cemex was any more aware than anyone else in the air pollution community that chrome 6 existed in substantial amounts in the clinker."

Jennifer Borgen, spokeswoman for Cemex, says the company was "surprised" at the results and "immediately set up an action plan to determine where the chromium 6 came from."

Kendig says the district has found the probable sources of chrome 6 in Davenport. Two common ingredients used in the production of cement, mill scale and steel slag, contain high levels of total chromium. When heated to high temperatures to form clinker, that chromium can turn into chromium 6. After analyzing the data, Kendig's office found that the cancer risk is 81 per million from the sample collected at Pacific Elementary School, and 102 per million at the Fire Department. The cancer risk is based upon exposure rates of 70 years. Kendig says that he believes the primary sources for the chromium have been used at the plant since about 2001 and that the cancer risk for shorter exposure times is less. But, he says, he's "not sure if it's a perfectly linear relationship." Borgen says that the particular source of the raw scale and slag have been used at the plant for one year, and that the levels of chromium can vary depending on where the materials were sourced. Total chromium is present in nearly all raw materials used in the production of cement, but they are in significantly higher percentages in scale and slag.

Kendig says that the APCD has an ambient monitoring station in Davenport that runs continuously, which samples for different pollutants at different times. Initial data collecting for chromium 6 was from June to August. After sending the results away for analysis and checking the findings, he issued the results to the public on Oct. 3.

The chromium 6-containing dust drifted from the plant during loading of the cement trucks, and Kendig says that's one procedure the company has to change.

"They have to really tighten up on their plant procedures, tighten up on their fugitive dust. Fugitive dust has always been an issue there," Kendig says.

Due to lagging market demand for cement, the plant was temporarily shut down before the results were published, Borgen says. Though she does not know when it will reopen, Borgen says the company has "made the commitment to not use slag and scale when we reopen our Davenport plant." In addition, she says Cemex has taken steps to better collect the dust, including replacing old parts, increasing maintenance and slowing the speeding of loading.

Borgen says the use of slag and scale in the production of cement is "pretty common" and that the company is looking at its other plants to determine any presence of chromium 6. However, Cemex and other cement manufacturers have not yet stopped using slag and scale at other plants across the country.

So far, Kendig says, Cemex has been cooperating with the board. "Cemex has expressed great concern, and they have not indicated resistance to the conclusion that they have to reduce their emissions and get them below the unacceptable risk level," Kendig states.

Pacific Elementary School Principal Sharon Smith says that she immediately began researching information on chromium 6 once she learned of its presence. Smith says she's sent out emails to parents in English and Spanish and arranged a special board meeting for parents.

Recent water tests came back "very clean," with chromium 6 levels well within a safe range, according to results given to Smith.

There is currently no set government standard for acceptable levels of chromium 6. Kendig says that his board is working on establishing a set limit. However, that limit will only apply to the three counties in the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District; whether the EPA will enact national regulations remains to be seen.

Further sampling continues in the air and soil around Davenport, and Smith says she would like testing in all the classrooms to determine how much exposure the schoolchildren have had.

Kendig says testing is but one of the safety measures the board is taking. "We are going to be hiring a contractor to do expanded long-term air monitoring and soil sampling to map the area of the contamination plume, if there is contamination," Kendig says. "We're updating equipment, borrowing equipment from the state resources board that will provide greater accuracy; accurately measuring the concentrations is difficult." He expects further results later this week.

Previously, the Davenport Cemex plant was found to have been releasing airborne mercury at levels that approached unacceptable. Kendig says that further testing showed the mercury levels at lower and legal levels.

Cemex, a multinational, multibillion-dollar company, has a history of environmental violations in California and across the country. The corporation has committed repeated violations in Colorado, most recently in June for emissions violations, failure to operate testing equipment correctly and record-keeping errors. Last year, the EPA filed a complaint against the company for violating federal air regulations at its Victorville plant, and in 2006, Cemex was cited for violations at plants in Santa Barbara and Michigan. Though no fines have been imposed on the Davenport plant yet, Kendig says that's "always possible."

Repress Here

The way John Woods and Cass King of The Wet Spots figured it, performing their burlesque show in Santa Cruz would be no problem. Surely the home of sex educator Susie Bright would have no trouble with their act, a series of humorous sex-positive songs and skits with titles like "Spank My Bottom." After all, King had donned the bustier and Woods had stripped down to his skivs and tuxedo jacket for performances in the Sydney Opera House during which the couple performed favorites like the mock-earnest ballad "I Just Want to Fuck Somebody Else" (Darling, I adore you and these years have been the sweetest of my life/ Everybody knows our relationship is nice/ It's a charming affair and the way that you care/ makes it comfortable for me to share/ that sometimes I just want to fuck somebody else). They'd even performed in a church in Santa Monica. Recalls Woods, "One person came up afterwards and said, 'I know you'll think this is weird, but I think what you're doing is a ministry.' They were Unitarians, of course, but still ..."

So it was a surprise, to say the least, to learn that the Wet Spots' show didn't pass muster with the board at the Actors' Theatre. Woods says the duo had an Oct. 22 date at the theater until the board conducted what Woods thought would be a pro forma review of the material. Instead, the Wet Spots got word on Sept. 22 that the board was denying them permission to use the theater.

"I was surprised," Woods says. "Sometimes we get rejected from a festival because of aesthetic choices people make, but we've never been denied permission anywhere on earth to rent a place to put on our own show."

Woods says he heard scuttlebutt that the board feared audiences would be outraged, so he wrote a letter to the board in which he explained that in spite of the adult material, the Wet Spots consider themselves proponents of an "empowered, happy, healthy attitude toward sex." He got no response.

Neither did Nu_z, except for this statement from the board, delivered by member Davis Banta: "We simply didn't feel familiar enough with their material to attract a diverse enough audience for our venue."

The Wet Spots aren't crying into their massage oil, though. They're now booked at Cayuga Vault this Sunday night, Oct. 19, where Woods says they'll continue spreading their come-one-come-all sex-positive message.

"We try to be entertainers first," he says. "We try to provide fun, lighthearted songs, grown-up comedy, but there is a mission to what we're doing in terms of trying to get people to stop being ashamed about sexuality."

Race Is On

A year ago, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal and a group of other community activists launched the Coalition for a Countywide Community Dialogue on Race, Poverty, Equality and Justice. Since then the group has held four sessions around the county, inviting people to relate their experiences of racial inequality and to talk about how to achieve a more egalitarian society. Speakers have included Santa Cruz County Schools Superintendent Michael Watkins, Watsonville activist Cruz Gomez, San Lorenzo Valley activist Wanda Knight and Santa Cruz City Council candidate and youth organizer Simba Kenyatta.

This Saturday, Oct. 18, the coalition presents videotaped portions of the four gatherings and another opportunity for dialogue. Titled Overcoming Racism and Building A Racially Just County, the event takes place at the Horticultural Center at Cabrillo College from 9am to 3pm. All are welcome.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.