Lawmaker pushed on legislation that affects Augusta Olin plant

A Georgia Congressman’s plan to amend legislation that would phase out mercury-based technology at four chlorine factories – including the Olin Corp. plant in Augusta – was placed on hold this week after local environmentalists mounted a telephone and e-mail campaign opposing the action.

 

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said the planned amendment had been prepared by U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., and would have extended until 2017 the deadline for such factories to either convert to a mercury-free manufacturing process or close. The original legislation in House Resolution 2190 imposed a 2012 deadline.

She estimated that 60 people or more contacted Mr. Barrow’s office to express concerns over the matter.

“The bill was pulled for markup so that other members of the committee have more time to consider the bill,” Mrs. Bonitatibus said. “We definitely succeeded in making them think about the bill, so that's good.”

Jane Brodsky, Mr. Barrow’s communications director, said in an e-mail today that the decision not to mark up the bill was unrelated to the calls to his office.

“Congressman Barrow’s office has received calls on both sides of the issue, and he plans to work towards a bill that strikes the right balance between doing the right thing by the environment and protecting jobs in his district,” she said. “He has submitted an amendment that he thinks would accomplish those goals, and will decide if and when the (Energy & Commerce) committee chooses to conduct their markup whether or not he will offer it for consideration.”

The original bill, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., would also affect an Olin plant in Charleston, Tenn.; a PPG Industries facility in Natrium, W.Va.; and the Ashta Chemicals plant in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Such factories make chlorine by pumping saltwater through a "cell" of mercury to create a chemical reaction. The process causes mercury to be released into the environment, where it can accumulate in fish and be passed to humans.

Mrs. Bonitatibus said discussions are under way for a similar amendment that would extend the compliance deadline just two years – until 2014.

“We could live with that one,” she said. “Two more years is reasonable. We did not want to wait four more years.”

Olin Corp. officials have said the company has no plans – and sees no need – to invest in a conversion program for the Augusta plant, which could cost an estimated $90 million.

In August, however, Olin announced a $150 million bond issue to generate capital to help the company strengthen its "long-term liquidity given uncertain economic times."

The prospectus for that bond issue specifically mentioned the pending legislation among factors that could influence the company's financial health, saying it "would ban the production of chlor alkali products using mercury cell technology two years from the date it is enacted into law."

The prospectus noted that the Augusta plant and a second mercury cell plant owned by Olin provide 18 percent of the company's production capacity. "We are closely monitoring the progress of these bills, but it is too soon to estimate the likelihood of enactment and, therefore, to determine what impact there will be on Olin and the chlor alkali industry," the document states.

Mrs. Bontatibus said she hopes the plant can be converted and will remain a major local employer and taxpayer. “We don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but we do want the plant to do what’s best for the economy and the environment,” she said. “Olin should have seen this coming a long time ago.”

 

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