Olin Corp.'s Augusta plant will eliminate mercury use

Reconfiguration will cost 50 of 75 workers their jobs

Olin Corp. announced Friday that it will eliminate the use of mercury in its Augusta plant in the next two years, but the change will lead to the elimination of two-thirds of its local work force.

After the reconfiguration, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2012, the plant will end production of mercury cell chlor alkali and will manufacture bleach and distribute caustic soda.

The plant has 75 full-time employees, according to Olin Chlor Alkali Products' Web site. About 50 of those positions will be eliminated as a result of the changes, the company said Friday.

The job cuts "will likely occur in phases beginning at the end of 2012," said Elaine Patterson, Olin Corp.'s director of government and public affairs, in an e-mail Friday afternoon.

One of the most vocal opponents of Olin's use of mercury has been Savannah Riverkeeper. The environmental group's executive director, Tonya Bonitatibus, said the plant's very existence was riding on the elimination of mercury from its manufacturing process.

The alternative processes at other chlorine-manufacturing plants are more energy efficient and cost less than the mercury-based process, she said, meaning that Olin's competitors are able to undercut the company's prices.

"It is extremely sad to have lost these 50 jobs, but had they not made this decision, they would have lost all of them," Bonitatibus said. "They made this decision because, economically, it was the right thing for this plant to do."

Frank Chirumbole, the president of Olin Chlor Alkali Products, said in a statement, "Following months of careful consideration, we have determined that these changes are essential to allow continued operations at our Augusta plant."

Olin CEO Joseph D. Rupp acknowledged that outside pressure, in the form of customers passing up Olin products because of the company's use of mercury, was a factor in the decision to eliminate mercury from its plants in Augusta and Charleston, Tenn. Those are two of only four such plants across the country still using mercury to make chlorine; about 115 plants have converted to newer processes.

"Over the past 18 months we have experienced a steady increase in the number of our customers unwilling to accept our products manufactured using mercury cell technology," Rupp said in a statement. "The conversion of the Charleston facility which, in addition to chlorine and caustic soda, also produces potassium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid and bleach, will prevent the possible loss of these valuable customers."

One "valued customer," according to Patterson, is German chemical company Wacker Chemie AG.

Wacker announced in February 2009 that it would build a hyperpure polycrystalline silicon plant near Olin's Charleston facility. Wacker cited the that proximity to the Olin plant as a deciding factor to build the plant in Tennessee, and the chemical company announced Thursday that site preparation is under way on the $1.5 billion facility.

Tom Rowland, the mayor of nearby Cleveland, Tenn., told the Cleveland Daily Banner that health, safety and environmental protection are fundamental to Wacker's decision-making.

Regarding the loss of jobs in Augusta, Olin officials said they will offer "retention incentives and relocation opportunities" for some of the affected employees. Those who are not offered a new position or who choose not to accept one will receive assistance searching for a new job and a financial severance package, the company said.

"We understand the impact our Augusta plant reconfiguration will have," Chirumbole said. "We are committed to working with employees and the community as this process and our Augusta facility moves forward."

Bonitatibus said this "has certainly been a week for the Savannah River" from an environmental perspective, focusing on Olin's announcement and word earlier this week that a planned incinerator by GreenFirst LLC farther upstream in Elbert County, Ga., will not go forward.

"Merry Christmas, Savannah River," she said.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.