An environmental group that’s been arguing for stricter federal limits on the emissions from cement plants, including the three in Iowa, is hailing a new promise from the E.P.A. Environmental Protection Administration officials say they’ll issue a new rule in March that would outline new restrictions for cement plants. Jim Pew is the lead attorney for the group "Earthjustice."

"Cement kilns are one of the biggest emitters of mercury in the country, not as much as power plants, but in the same ballpark," Pew says. "They also emit lots of dangerous organic pollutants that aren’t controlled and lots of acid gases. The agency has been blatantly violating federal law by failing to set any control requirement for mercury or these other pollutants."

Earthjustice and other environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit in early 2007 to try to get the E.P.A. to impose tougher rules to reduce such emissions from cement plants around the country. "We have been working for about a decade now to try to get the Environmental Protection Agency to finally reduce some of the worst toxic emissions from cement kilns," Pew says.

E.P.A. Administrators in the out-going Bush Administration have promised to propose new emission restrictions by the end of March, putting the lawsuit from Earthjustice and the other environmental groups on hold for at least a year. "E.P.A. has just filed papers with the court saying they will at least address the issue and that will be a first," Pew says. The rules, to be released on March 31st, will be drafted under the new Obama Administration and Pew says he’s hopeful they’ll be comprehensive.

But Earthjustice and the other environmental groups aren’t withdrawing their lawsuit yet. "You sort of trust but verify. What this does is it puts the litigation on hold for about a year to see if E.P.A. does what it says it’s going to do," Pew says. "If E.P.A. goes off track and doesn’t do it, we can reactivate the litigation at any time, but the idea is that E.P.A. will propose a rule that fixes this problem in March of this year and finalize the rule in March of next year."

Officials who represent the Lehigh cement plant in Mason City said in mid-2008 that the Mason City plant has installed "state-of-the-art pollution control equipment" that is reducing mercury emissions.

Tim Matz, Lehigh’s director of environmental affairs for North America, said in July that the company had also installed "controls" for nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. Those two compounds are byproducts of cement. There are two cement plants in Mason City, the one run by Lehigh and the other run by Holcim. There’s also a cement plant in Buffalo, which is near Davenport.