MADISON (August 8, 2006) – Air quality tests have found high levels of toxic mercury near a chlorine manufacturing plant in Port Edwards, Wisconsin. The tests – conducted by Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – show that mercury levels around the ERCO Worldwide chlorine plant were 38 times higher than levels measured at a control site, and 600 times the natural background concentration measured in previous studies by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The ERCO plant is the top mercury polluter in Wisconsin. According to company estimates submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the plant released 1,117 pounds of mercury into the air in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available. Unlike most of the U.S. chlorine industry, which has switched to cleaner, non-mercury production techniques, the ERCO plant uses mercury as a catalyst to produce chlorine and caustic soda.
“These tests show some of the highest mercury levels we’ve seen so far,” said Jackie Savitz, director of Oceana’s Pollution Campaign. “Oceana has repeatedly asked ERCO to join the 90% of the industry that makes chlorine, using mercury-free technology. That alone would reduce Wisconsin’s mercury pollution by nearly a third.”
Results of the study were released at the “Finding Solutions to the Global Mercury Crisis” forum today in Madison, where Oceana and NRDC joined other environmental, health and public interest groups to present solutions to reduce mercury pollution and address its health risks. The groups are holding the forum today to coincide with an international scientific conference on mercury in Madison this week.
“There is no need for ERCO or any other chlorine plant to use something as toxic as mercury when there are better alternatives out there,” Savitz said.
Eight chlorine-producing plants – also known as chlor-alkali plants – in the United States still use mercury cells, a 19th century technology that has been replaced at most U.S. chlorine plants with more modern, mercury-free technology. NRDC monitored six other mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants in the summer of 2005 and found high mercury levels around most of the facilities (for the report, “Lost and Found,” go to http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/chlor/contents.asp). Mercury levels in air around the ERCO plant are the third highest among the plants tested by Oceana and NRDC. ERCO also is one of the three plants where mercury levels exceeded EPA’s “safe level” for chronic exposure.
“These results confirm that ERCO, like the other plants we’ve tested, is a significant source of mercury pollution,” said Linda E. Greer, Ph.D., director of NRDC's Health Program. “ERCO poses a threat to public health.”
Mercury is a highly toxic pollutant, and exposure to it during gestation and early childhood can cause developmental and learning disabilities. Mercury also can cause neurological problems in adults, such as impaired memory, depression, lack of coordination, numbness in hands and feet, and muscle tremors, as well as vision and blood pressure problems. Mercury released by the remaining outmoded chlor-alkali plants pollutes not only the air, but also lakes, rivers and oceans where it travels up the food chain, contaminating fish that people eat.
“There are cleaner, proven technologies that can not only protect public health from the risks of mercury, but also save chlorine producers money,” Greer said. “The time has come for these obsolete mercury chlor-alkali plants to join the rest of the industry and switch to clean, modern technology.”