From the notebook of business editor Tim Rausch

Olin is a big, fat (and completely legal) polluter

The irony of Olin Corp.'s chlorine plant in Augusta is that it pollutes our water to manufacture a product to clean our water.

The chemical plant in south Richmond County makes chlorine, caustic soda and bleach - the stuff municipalities use to treat their sewage and purify their drinking water.

In doing so, the facility releases a toxic byproduct, mercury, into the air and into the Savannah River.

This has made the company (which also makes Winchester-brand ammunition of all things) a target for environmentalists such as Oceana. That group, along with the help of a handful of locals, has embarked on a major campaign to persuade the company to upgrade the 40-year-old facility to mercury-free technology that is more commonplace today.

You've no doubt seen the signs that the plant's opponents have placed around town or the letters to the editor they have written.

I believe their cause, while noble, is an exercise in futility, at least in the near term.

Here's why: Olin is doing nothing wrong, in a strictly legal sense, anyway.

That's right; the big bad chlorine plant is operating within the parameters of Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines for acceptable emissions. That's something that seems to get lost in all the hubris.

Another reason I believe the anti-mercury campaign will have little effect is that it's pretty difficult to get protests organized in Augusta. We usually have to bus our protesters in from other places. (See Burk, Martha). Even if everyone who is opposed to the plant's mercury emissions grabbed a picket sign, what would they do? Hang out in front of the plant and get covered in dust by passing tractor trailers?

Olin's corporate headquarters are in Missouri and the division that runs the Augusta plant is based in Tennessee. It's doubtful they're feeling the heat of campaign, as mild as it is, all the way over there.

Keep in mind this is the same company that last year invested more than $11 million to double the plant's output using the same old mercury-cell technology. If they didn't want to spend the money to convert the plant before, they certainly are going to be less interested now.

The only way to truly force Olin to eliminate the mercury emissions is to get feds to change their regulations; something that even the environmentalists would acknowledge is a task as daunting as taking on a $3 billion-a-year chemical company.

I, too, would like to see Olin adopt a better way of making its bleach. I'm just not too confident I'll see it happen any time soon.

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Augustagirl1
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Augustagirl1 03/07/07 - 02:38 pm
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As the spouse of a former

As the spouse of a former Olin employee, I know about the containment ponds, tanks, and other methods that Olin uses to purify the waste product flowing into the Savannah River. They have taken many steps to reduce the mercury content of their emissions.

I also know that if pushed beyond current EPA laws, the company has a history of closing plants where citizens/protesters/municipalities want the company to change its processes. It costs the company much less to close up and leave than to retool its plants due to environmentalist group protests. Ask the people in Buffalo NY what happened there.

So, Augusta, you either have the plant and the dollars it brings into the economy in Augusta and put up with mercury emissions, or you push the company into leaving the area and put a good number of employees out of jobs in an area where good jobs are difficult to come by.

Lou Stewall
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Lou Stewall 03/08/07 - 11:48 pm
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You can use your outrage in

You can use your outrage in productive or futile efforts. What economic benefit can you cite for mau-mauing Olin?

A better question is why we aren't capitalizing on our status as the LAST east coast river that permits, in small percentages, Atlantic ocean freshwater shoal-spawning fish to have another generation?

We've paid a bunch of fat cat Augusta lawyers more to fight the fish ladders than it would have cost to build them. Augusta had a cannery for shad roe (redneck caviar) and it was a holiday breakfast treat for my family. Every other eastern flowing river that once had shoals is pretty much dammed up, but a movement is afoot to reverse this for the sake of the spawning fish.

I actually believe some Northeastern fishery organizations would pay us to help the darn fish.

cecilshipp
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cecilshipp 03/10/07 - 10:51 am
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I worked in Cell Maintenance

I worked in Cell Maintenance and got burnt by Caustic,on my foot.
I use to notice the trach containers had Dropulates of mercury mixed in with the trash, This should be looked at by the company!!
Also worries me that the Large storage tanks"Chlorine"to fill railroad cars are located near the Flight landing path of the large aircraft Making approaches to Bush field.

GnipGnop
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GnipGnop 03/14/07 - 09:36 am
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So move the airport...it

So move the airport...it doesn't make a profit anyways lol!!!

bethkemler
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bethkemler 03/16/07 - 04:06 pm
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I know it's hard to believe

I know it's hard to believe but since Oceana's Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination started targeting chlorine plants to go mercury free two years ago, two companies have announced that they will voluntarily switch to mercury-free technology.

Most recently, Pioneer Companies announced in January that it would go mercury-free at its plant in Baton Rouge, LA as part of an expansion. Because modern, mercury-free technology is more efficient, the company expects the financial benefits of the conversion project to pay for its cost within five years.

-Beth Kemler, Oceana Seafood Campaign Organizer

simon.mahan
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simon.mahan 04/10/07 - 06:18 pm
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Even if Olin's Augusta plant

Even if Olin's Augusta plant is "following the law" they still emitted 824 pounds of mercury into the air in 2005.

While it's true that Olin has recently invested nearly $11.8 million to double its bleach production over the past couple of years, the $11.8 million was spread across three chlor-alkali plants and not solely spent on the Augusta plant.

$1.3 million was spent at Olin's Tennessee plant.
$6.5 million was spent at Olin's Niagara Falls plant.
$4 million was spent in Augusta.

Additionally, Olin quite rightly pointed out that mercury is not used in bleach production. Mercury is used to produce chlorine and caustic soda, which are then used to make bleach. Bleach production does not prevent Olin from switching to mercury-free technology.

(It's worth-while to point out the Niagara Falls plant is mercury-free; meanwhile, Olin HQ in St. Louis no doubt read a letter to the editor which was published in the Post-Dispatch about switching to mercury free and Oceana has an organizer in Tennessee. Oceana isn't just focused on Augusta, but the city is at the front-lines).

The next point of Olin shutting its doors if it is "pushed beyond current EPA laws" is not as clear cut of a case as it may seem.

Bringing up an earlier point is important: why would they close if they just invested several million dollars in the plant? Olin makes money in Augusta only if they stay in Augusta.

Additionally, Olin is very experienced in switching to mercury-free technology, and staying in a community. Olin switched it's McIntosh, Alabama chlorine plant to mercury-free technology in 1978 and the facility is still in operation today.

Olin also switched to mercury-free technology at its Niagara Falls, New York plant in 1987 (two decades ago) - the same plant is getting a huge increase in bleach capacity. You don't need mercury to produce bleach, and you don't need mercury to produce chlorine and caustic soda. By switching to mercury-free technology, this plant also improved energy efficiency by 25 percent.

So, Augusta, why does Olin get to keep polluting your beautiful city and river when the company already decided to stop polluting McIntosh and Niagara Falls?

Read more about Oceana's campaign here.

Sincerely,
Simon Mahan
Campaign Projects Manager
Oceana, Inc.

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