Environmental groups Monday renewed efforts to compel Olin Corp.'s Augusta plant to modernize its manufacturing process to stop releasing mercury into air and water.
"We get the smell, they get the money," said Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring, who spoke at a rally organized by Augusta Riverkeeper Inc. "They have to be forced to do it."
The 40-year-old chlor-alkali plant is among nine sites in the United States that still use mercury cell technology to make chlorine; 53 other chlorine factories have mercury-free processes.
Olin refuses to convert because it will cost money, Mr. Herring said.
"They've made money every year by not being clean with their mercury," he said. "It's money they're not spending to protect the people in this community."
Mr. Herring said the plant releases 800 pounds of mercury annually and ranks third in Georgia - behind coal-fired power plants in Macon and Cartersville - in mercury emissions.
Mr. Herring said it is often beneficial for industries to eliminate pollution to avoid costly cleanup, monitoring and lawsuit costs. He noted a $50 million settlement reached last month over mercury and PCB contamination from a Glynn County, Ga., plant that used similar technology.
"It's not too far fetched to think they could face a similar situation here in the not-so-distant future," he said.
Augusta attorney John Bell, who was part of the legal team that won the record-setting settlement on behalf of Glynn County and 200 property owners, believes the Augusta plant should take steps to eliminate mercury emissions.
"They're poisoning fish from here all the way to Savannah," said Mr. Bell, who attended Monday's rally as an observer. "The biggest difference between here and there is here they dump into a flowing river; down there, they dumped in an estuary and it stayed there, like a big pond."
Tom Swift, the president of the American Academy of Neurology, said mercury is one of the most insidious pollutants in terms of its threat to humans.
"It affects the brain and causes changes in personality and behavior," he said, noting that its most vulnerable victims are pregnant women and young children.
Another environmental group, Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, outlined a campaign it says has already collected 1,100 postcards, which will be mailed to Olin Chief Executive Officer Joseph D. Rupp at the company's Clayton, Mo., headquarters.
Olin officials Monday reiterated their earlier position that the Augusta facility is in compliance with its state and federal operating permits and has already taken steps to reduce mercury emissions.
"The plant discharges only one-third of what the government allows for water and 40 percent of what is allowed for air," Lenny Scott, Olin's technology director, said in an e-mail. "Total mercury emissions are down 87 percent since 1987."
He also pointed out that the plant provides 203 jobs with a $7.5 million payroll and pays $500,000 in taxes.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ISSUES AT A GLANCE
- Olin Corp.'s 40-year-old Augusta plant uses mercury to manufacture chlorine.
- Environmental groups want Olin to eliminate mercury emissions into air and water.
- Conversion to modern, mercury-free technology has cost $70 million at similar plants.
- Olin contends its plant is safe and in compliance with its state and federal permits.
- Environmentalists have launched a letter-writing and lobbying campaign to bring change.