Minimizing mercury

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The news came late last month without a whole lot of fanfare: The Olin Corp. finalized a deal to acquire fellow chemical company Pioneer Cos. Inc. in a buyout valued at more than $400 million.

But that deal could mean more to the CSRA than you might think.

Olin is one of the largest industries in the Augusta area. Its annual payroll exceeds $7 million. The company pays hundreds of thousands in taxes. As a valued corporate citizen, it generates a significant economic impact for Augusta.

It also generates deadly mercury.

Olin makes chlorine. You probably know it best as a chemical to disinfect pool water, but it has a lot of commercial applications, particularly in the production of plastics.

To make chlorine, Olin use a process called mercury-cell technology. Without boring you with the scientific details of how that works, suffice it to say that it isn't cutting-edge science. The method has been in use by chlorine manufacturers since the 19th century. It can cause toxic mercury to seep into ecosystems.

And despite Olin's best efforts to reduce its mercury releases, it still emitted a reported 824 pounds of mercury into Augusta's air in 2005 - well below acceptable government release levels, but let's face it: Any amount is too much.

While Olin's commitment to responsible environmental stewardship is well-documented through such plans as its Responsible Care initiative, it hasn't been enough to keep mercury contamination out of our local environment.

But it can, by abandoning the mercury-cell approach to extracting chlorine and switching to membrane-cell technology, which liberates chlorine gas without releasing any mercury.

That's where Pioneer comes in.

Before it officially became a part of the Olin corporate family, Pioneer started an initiative to switch its St. Gabriel, La., chlorine plant to the membrane-cell production method - a switch that is expected to be complete by late next year.

That leaves just five chlorine plants nationwide that still employ the mercury-cell method. The environmental group Oceana calls them the "Filthy Five."

And Olin can cut that down to three.

Olin's plants in Augusta and Charleston, Tenn., can seize an opportunity now to follow suit with its newest acquisition and make the wise membrane-cell switch, for several good reasons:

- It saves energy. The huge amounts of electricity it takes now to make chlorine the old way can be cut significantly; one Kentucky plant that converted improved energy efficiency 25 percent.

- Switching to membrane-cell often allows for an increase in capacity. The more chlorine a plant makes, the more it can sell. Combine that with the energy savings and that can result in larger profits.

- Think of all the money Olin likely spends on waste management for mercury, monitoring mercury levels and keeping up required levels of maintenance. If mercury goes away, all those costs go away.

And let's not forget the most important by-product of all this: Mercury levels in our local environment would drop like a rock. Augusta's air becomes healthier to breathe. What's not to like about that?

Olin is too important and proud a corporate citizen of the CSRA to have to bear the stigma of being a mercury polluter. The company should do whatever it must, as quickly as possible, to revoke its membership in the Filthy Five.

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jiclemens
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jiclemens 09/16/07 - 11:42 am
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The Chronicle, as usual fails

The Chronicle, as usual fails to offer the facts on why mercury is of concern to the citizens of Augusta at the risk of offending an almighty business. It isn't just the air that is polluted. Olin's mercury also contaminates our water. IT IS NOT SAFE TO EAT BASS CAUGHT IN THE SAVANNAH RIVER MORE THAN ONCE A WEEK. It concentrates in the tissues of popular local fish and it is toxic to humans, and it is especially dangerous to our children and a developing fetus. Recreational fishing is risky business and I wouldn't bother. Olin, employment is great, but you're endangering our children. CLEAN UP YOUR ACT NOW!

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