Congress pushing Olin plant to change

Legislation that would require an Augusta chemical plant to undertake a $90 million conversion to eliminate its use of mercury — or shut down — was approved by the House Energy & Commerce Committee this week with an amendment offering such companies two additional years to complete their renovations.

The Mercury Pollution Reduction Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., is aimed at the nation’s four remaining chlorine factories that still use a mercury processing system to manufacture chlorine.

Olin Corporation’s Augusta plant — with about 100 jobs and a $9 million annual payroll — is among them.

Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for Ms. Schakowsky, said the original bill required conversion or closure by 2013 and the amendment would allow until 2015 to complete renovations.

“It gives them two years to decide – then they have a year to close if the choose to or until 2015 to convert,” he said.

In addition to Olin’s Augusta plant, the legislation would affect an Olin plant in Charleston, Tenn.; a PPG Industries facility in Natrium, W.Va.; and the Ashta Chemicals plant in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Such factories make chlorine by pumping saltwater through a “cell” of mercury to create a chemical reaction. The process causes mercury to be released into the environment, where it can accumulate in fish and be passed to humans.

Olin officials have opposed previous versions of the bill and are closely watching its progress.

“The vote on Wednesday was one step in a long process,” said Olin spokeswoman Elaine Patterson. “As we have said throughout this process, an unrealistic and impractical deadline is not in the best interests of our employees or the communities in which our plants are based. We will continue to work in both the House and Senate toward a more practical legislative approach would allow manufacturers more time to make such a significant transition—helping to preserve good jobs while continuing environmental progress.”

She would not say whether Olin would convert the Augusta plant or close it, if the legislation eventually becomes law.

Mr. Kincaid said the amended bill would require a decision by June 30, 2012. Plants that would not be converted must close by June 30, 2013 and those planning to convert to mercury-free technology must do so by June 30, 2015. The next stop for the legislation is the House floor for a vote, but a companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is still awaiting committee review.

Since 1974, more than 116 plants have shifted to Mercury-free technology, according to data provided by Ms. Schakowsly. Plants that shifted to membrane-cell technology generally have achieved increases in energy efficiency of 25 to 37 percent per ton of chlorine produced. The mercury cell chlor-alkali technology has been used since 1894.

Olin’s Augusta plant generates more than $35 million in local goods and pays about $500,000 in property taxes. In addition to its 100 manufacturing jobs, an additional 103 jobs are tied to related support services.

The Back Story

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’s 43-year-old plant remains in compliance with all its state and federal regulatory permits, and contributes 100 jobs – and $500,000 in annual property taxes – to the community.

Since 1974, at least 116 plants have shifted to mercury-free technology, leaving just four in the U.S. – including the Augusta facility – that continue to use the mercury manufacturing process.

Pending legislation would force those four plants to either close or convert to mercury-free processes. Such a conversion in Augusta has been estimated at $90 million.

Olin has not announced whether the Augusta plant will convert or close if the legislation eventually becomes law.

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