Posted March 5, 2007 11:45 pm - Updated March 6, 2007 10:04 am

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.