Mercury-based chlorine manufacturing plants are a major source of mercury contamination in the United States, releasing more mercury to the air per plant, on average, than coal-burning power plants, Oceana said in a report released today. A similar problem exists in Europe, where this unnecessary use of mercury is subject to a government-mandated phase-out. The ocean conservation group's groundbreaking report launched its Seafood Contamination Campaign, an ambitious international effort to reduce mercury contamination and protect public and ocean health.
Oceana's report is the first to focus on the chlorine industry as a major source of mercury contamination. The analysis of U.S. and European industry and government data concludes that chlorine manufacturers that use outdated mercury-cell technology are a major source of mercury emissions into the environment, a situation easily remedied by using currently available technology.
Ninety percent of U.S. chlorine is made using mercury-free technology, which shows that the significant mercury pollution released by these plants is unnecessary and completely preventable. The European Commission is requiring a phase-out of mercury use by chlorine factories in Europe by 2007. In the United Kingdom, chlorine plants generate one-third of the mercury released to air. In the United States, these mercury-using plants are the No. 1 source of mercury air pollution in seven of the eight states where they still operate. ASHTA Chemicals in Ohio is the fifth-largest mercury emitter to the air in the United States.
"Fifteen years ago, Congress amended the Clean Air Act, which requires companies like these to continually improve to cut down releases of hazardous chemicals like mercury," said Andrew Sharpless, Oceana's chief executive officer. "But rather than enforce this law, the EPA is still giving these chlorine plants a pass and letting them continue to release tons of mercury every year with their 19th century technology."
In addition to reported releases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and industry figures, U.S. mercury-cell plants cannot account for tons of mercury that are "lost" each year. In 2000, the industry "lost" 65 tons of mercury. Much of this mercury is believed to be released into the environment. If only half of this "lost" mercury entered the environment, the chlorine industry would approach coal-fired power plants as the No. 1 mercury emitter.
"A year ago, the EPA weakened regulations on mercury use in chlorine manufacturing, but EPA must reverse course and require these chlorine factories to join the 21st century by using mercury-free technology. In the meantime, we are calling on the industry to phase out the mercury-emitting technology," said Jackie Savitz, Oceana's Pollution Campaign Director and leader of the Seafood Contamination Campaign. "These chlorine manufacturers are getting a free ride on mercury. Oceana's report proves that we can't keep overlooking this industry as a polluter. With nine plants responsible for tons of mercury releases every year, it is time for these companies to take responsibility and either shut down or update their technology."
Most mercury ingested by humans results from eating contaminated fish. Mercury can cause serious health problems, especially in children. A U.S. EPA scientist has estimated that one in six pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose risks, such as brain damage, to her developing baby. In the United States, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration cautioned women of childbearing age and children to limit the amount and types of seafood they eat due to the risk of mercury poisoning. Governments around the world have issued similar warnings.
Six U.S. companies - the Olin Corporation (NYSE:OLN), Occidental Chemicals Corp. (NYSE:OXY), PPG Industries (NYSE:PPG), ASHTA Chemicals, Vulcan Materials, Inc. (NYSE:VMC), and Pioneer Companies, Inc. (OTC BB:PONR.OB) - are responsible for nine active mercury-cell chlorine plants operating in eight states: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.