Originally created 11/23/05

Releases of mercury by chemical plant criticized

One of Augusta's oldest chemical plants was criticized Tuesday as an industrial dinosaur operating with technology that dates - literally - to the 1800s.

"Olin's chlorine plant is continuing to use outdated, 19th-century mercury technology," said Dawn Winalski, the project manager with Oceana, a marine conservation group.

Oceana and other environmental groups held a news conference near Olin's 40-year-old plant on Doug Barnard Parkway as part of a national effort to compel chlorine makers to invest in mercury-free technology that is safer for the environment.

Mercury, which is toxic, is released into air, land and water through many types of manufacturing. Olin's Augusta plant is second only to Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Scherer in documented mercury emissions, Ms. Winalski said.

Citing the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which tracks industrial chemical releases, she said Olin's plant emitted 739 pounds of mercury in the most recent complete report, dated 2003, which represented 19 percent of all mercury emissions in the state that year.

The plant is among only seven manufacturing sites nationwide where mercury-cell technology remains in use to make chlorine, she said.

Lenny Scott, the manager of Olin's Augusta plant, noted that his facility has a strong safety record and disputed that local mercury emissions are excessive.

"Our use of mercury is both careful and controlled," he said. "We emit less mercury to air, land and water than the government allows, and we've reduced our emissions significantly over the last few years."

A recent audit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said, found mercury levels in the air around the Olin plant in line with levels found anywhere in the environment, he said.

The plant also is adding new technology in 2006 that will further reduce mercury emissions.

The Augusta plant employs experts from the University of Michigan to perform annual audits to determine whether any mercury used at the plant is lost.

"We account for 99.8 percent of all the mercury used," he said. "So we feel we account for just about all our mercury every year."

Converting to mercury-free technology likely isn't on the horizon for the Augusta plant, which has 85 permanent jobs and about 35 contractor positions.

"Certainly we always look at ways to better our operation, and we're continuously trying to improve," Mr. Scott said. "Right now we don't see any need to convert the technology."

Most mercury released from chlorine plants goes into airborne emissions.

Once in the environment, it can accumulate in fish and other creatures. Mercury can cause neurological disorders and other health problems.

In addition to Olin's Georgia plant, mercury-cell chlorine plants operate in Alabama, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Similar plants in Louisiana and Delaware are either closing or being converted to mercury-free processes currently used at about 30 other plants, Ms. Winalski said.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

The Issues

- Environmentalists say Olin's Augusta plant uses outdated technology and excessive amounts of toxic mercury to make chlorine. They have asked Olin to convert to mercury-free technology.

- Olin officials say upgrades at the plant already have reduced mercury emissions significantly, and that conversion to new technology costing $20 million to $40 million is neither necessary nor financially feasible.


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