Bill would end mercury use at chlorine plants

Chlorine plants that use large amounts of toxic mercury for manufacturing -- including Olin Corporation's Augusta chlor-alkali plant -- would be forced to convert to modern methods or close by 2012 under a house bill introduced this week.

 

House Bill 5580, sponsored by Reps. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), targets the four remaining chlorine plants in the U.S. that continue to use mercury cell technology.

Savannah Riverkeeper and another environmental group, Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, have lobbied to compel Olin to invest about $90 million to convert the Augusta plant to more modern, mercury-free methods of manufacturing chlorine.

"Most companies have already made this shift but others are continuing to use 19th century technology, which results in the needless release of mercury into our environment," said Jackie Savitz, the senior director of Oceana's anti-mercury campaign.

The House bill, Dr. Savitz said, is almost identical to a Senate bill introduced in 2006 by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, which is getting more attention than it has in past years.

"On the Senate side, we have gotten five co-sponsors, so we are gaining momentum," she said. "But it has slowed down a little because of the presidential campaign the senator is involved in."

Mercury is a persistent and potent neurotoxin, which damages neurological development in children and cardiac health in adults, according to environmental groups, who also say companies can save money on electricity, waste disposal and environmental compliance by switching to modern technology.

Olin spokeswoman Elaine Patterson said the company has no plans to make the conversion at its Augusta plant, which has about 85 permanent jobs and 35 contract positions.

"Our position is the same," she said. "Our use of mercury is careful and controlled. Our plan is to continue to operate with this technology and we believe conversion is not warranted."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.