Olin: Grow up and clean up your own mess

Two years ago, Augusta Chronicle writer Rob Pavey reported about a high school student's discovery that Olin's chlorine plant was contaminating the channel leading to the Savannah River with mercury pollution ("Student detects mercury, April 13, 2006.)

Unfortunately, Olin still hasn't cleaned up the channel, and is arguing that it should only have to cover up the toxic mess with dirt while its plant continues to release mercury into our air and water. This leaves residents wondering whether Olin has any plans to eliminate mercury use in the near future. The answer, according to the company: No.

The results of Lauren Smith's science project showed unlawfully high levels of mercury in Olin's channel, ranging from 70 to 120 times the level considered safe for organisms living in the underwater mud. After the company's own tests confirmed Smith's results, the state ordered a cleanup. Olin responded with a proposal to cover up the mercury with dirt and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division already has allowed the process to drag on through two flood seasons.

If Olin gets its way, the mercury will be left there to seep into the Savannah River for many years to come. Scientists with the environmental group Oceana have analyzed the situation, and it is clear that the best way to keep contamination from entering the river is to remove it.

But even if the channel is cleaned up promptly and properly, this contamination is just a symptom of a larger problem. Olin is unnecessarily releasing mercury pollution. Using mercury at the chlorine plant is what caused the channel to be contaminated in the first place. Cleaning up the channel, without stopping the mercury pollution, would be just like putting a band aid on the problem. Until the company switches to mercury-free technology, the plant will continue to spew hundreds of pounds of mercury into our environment each year.

Fortunately for us, there is a solution that benefits everyone involved. The plant can shift to modern, mercury-free technology, which already is used to make 90 percent of U.S. chlorine. The community would see the elimination of a significant source of mercury pollution to the Savannah River. Plant workers would see job security in a plant whose life expectancy had been significantly increased. And the company would benefit from a reduction in operating costs and an increased production capacity. It would be a win-win-win situation!

In fact, more than 100 chlorine plants have successfully converted to mercury-free technology, including Olin's own plants in New York and Alabama. Though it certainly costs money to change the type of equipment used at the plant, many companies have earned their investments back within five years through energy efficiency and other benefits. If Olin had converted to mercury-free technology when Lauren found out about the contamination issue, the company could be reaping the benefits of increased energy efficiency and production today.

Unfortunately, Olin has refused to make this change, and seems to continuously ignore citizen complaints. Instead, Olin will apparently stick with an outdated process that puts our community at risk. Olin needs to be held to the same standards I hold my kids to: If they make a mess, they are responsible for cleaning it up.

The community and the state of Georgia must insist that Olin clean up the channel and switch to mercury-free technology now, to prevent further contamination.

The writer is the Georgia field representative for the environmental watchdog group Oceana.