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Chlorine Plants Hidden Culprits in Mercury Contamination

by Kari Lydersen

Though most anti-mercury activism has focused on coal-burning power plants, a small corner of the chlorine industry may be responsible for an even greater share of contamination.

June 6, 2006 – Environmental groups have set their sights on a little-known target: a handful of chlorine plants that may be releasing more mercury than all of the nation’s 500 coal-burning power plants combined.

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Though most of the chlorine industry has switched to mercury-free technology, a few remaining chlor-alkali plants use a century-old method to produce chlorine by pumping saltwater through mercury cells.

According to a 2005 analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data by the environmental group Oceana, the nine chlor-alkali plants in operation in 2000 reported purchasing and ostensibly using 79 tons of mercury and releasing 14 tons. The other 65 tons could not be accounted for.

The industry and the EPA have speculated that the "lost" mercury may be caught in the infrastructure inside the facilities, but EPA analyses of contamination at closed plants have not found nearly enough to account for the discrepancy between the mercury consumption and emissions.

"It may be going out in the air, it may be going out in waste material that isn’t accounted for," said Jackie Savitz, director of the Stop Seafood Contamination Campaign of Oceana. "They would like to say it’s hiding in the pipes, but they haven’t really been able to prove that."

Since Oceana’s analysis of nine plants, one has shut down, another has announced imminent closure and still another has said it will convert to the newer, cleaner technology, at a cost of $90 million..

"This technology is completely unnecessary."

Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing the chlorine industry and the EPA to force the remaining plants to account for the undocumented mercury and to switch to mercury-free technology, used by 90 percent of the industry, under a provision of the Clean Air Act that mandates companies use the best pollution-control technology available in their industry.

But in a final rule published in 2003, the EPA classified the mercury cell plants as a separate industry, and exempted them from having to meet the standards set by the rest of the chlorine plants. In 2004, the Sierra Club and the NRDC petitioned the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC to review the rule and also petitioned the EPA to reconsider. The EPA granted their petition for reconsideration, and a decision on the rule is currently still pending.

With enforcement from the EPA stalled, for the past year Oceana has been trying to directly pressure the companies to change their technology, and to ask the Chlorine Institute only to allow mercury-free members. Oceana has organized demonstrations outside the plants, and delivered cans of tuna to the Chlorine Institute president during its annual meeting in Chicago in April. Commercially canned tuna nationwide has been found to have high levels of mercury.

Calls to the companies that run the plants – Olin Corporation, ASHTA Chemicals, ERCO, Pioneer Chlor Alkali and PPG – were not returned. The Chlorine Institute trade group, which also could not be reached for this story, has pointed out that the mercury cell plants have reduced their stated mercury emissions in recent years.

Oceana has organized demonstrations outside the plants, and delivered cans of tuna to the Chlorine Institute president.

But Savitz said the decrease in reported emissions does not make up for refusing to use updated technology that could curb pollution dramatically.

"This technology is completely unnecessary," she said.

Though localized effects of mercury aren’t the primary concern for groups fighting the chlorine industry, there does appear to be an elevated risk posed to the predominately low-income communities surrounding the mercury-emitting plants. EPA sampling near the chlor-alkali plant in the small town of St. Gabriel, Louisiana in 2005, for instance, found the mercury vapor in the air was 10 times more than federally-mandated safe levels.

The nature of mercury contamination makes tracking the environmental impacts of a specific plant and working to curb emissions of the neurotoxin difficult. Since emitted mercury stays in the atmosphere for months before eventually falling back to the earth in rain, mercury from a plant in Louisiana could theoretically contaminate tuna from the Pacific Ocean.

The affects of mercury contamination on human health are also difficult to quantify. The neurotoxin is especially dangerous for fetuses and developing children. Both ocean and freshwater fish throughout the US have been found to have high levels of mercury; the EPA has estimated that 300,000 newborns in the US each year are at increased risk of learning disabilities or developmental problems because of prenatal mercury exposure.

"Nobody is dropping over in the streets; there aren’t any obvious things people can point to, to say there are these huge problems emanating from these facilities," said Eric Uram, a Wisconsin-based environmental consultant formerly with the Sierra Club who specializes in mercury issues. "Also many of the health issues related to mercury are so subtle, they’re extremely hard to detect and measure, so we can’t say for sure who’s being affected by it and to what degree. But we know people are being affected by it."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the June 6, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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