NO EXCUSES: Chlorine Plants’ Refusal to Switch to Mercury-Free Technology Not Justified Given Economic Benefits Revealed in New Oceana Report
Press Release Date: October 1, 2009
Location: Washington, DC
Five renegade chlorine plants that are among the top mercury polluters in the United States would reap economic benefits if they eliminated mercury in chlorine production, Oceana said today in a new report. The report, entitled Cleaning Up: Taking Mercury-Free Chlorine Production to the Bank, analyzes over 115 chlorine plants that are shifting or have successfully shifted from mercury-based technology. It then shows how the remaining U.S. plants that release hundreds of pounds of mercury into the air each year could protect public health and the environment, while increasing profits, by switching to mercury-free technology.
Simply switching to mercury-free technology – already used to produce 90 percent of the chlorine in the United States – would increase energy efficiency and provide an opportunity to increase capacity, sales and profits. Instead, these five facilities remain wedded to 110-year-old technology, resulting in the release of four times more mercury per plant, on average, than the average power plant.
“The chlorine industry’s dirty little secret is that five U.S. plants are releasing thousands of pounds of mercury into the environment each year,” said Jackie Savitz, pollution campaign director at Oceana. “Their refusal to switch to mercury-free technology – a cost-effective solution adopted by the majority of plants around the world – is an outrage that should concern citizens and shareholders alike. In some cases, plants have already spent nearly as much on mercury-related costs as they would have spent to convert their plants in the first place.”
The five plants – or Filthy Five as the report labels them – are Ashta Chemicals in Ashtabula, Ohio; Olin Corporation’s two plants in Charleston, Tenn. and Augusta, Ga.; PPG Industries in Natrium, W.Va.; and ERCO Worldwide in Port Edwards, Wis. Oceana has repeatedly called on the plants to shift to mercury-free technology as part of an ongoing campaign launched in 2005. Today’s report shows that the plants insistence on using outdated technology results in unnecessary costs to the companies, while still creating tons of mercury waste with associated disposal and cleanup problems and unnecessarily endangering public health.
In Cleaning Up, Oceana identifies 115 chlorine plants that already have successfully switched, or are in the process of switching, to mercury-free technology. It then takes a critical look at the five remaining plants in the United States that have not committed to stop using mercury. For each plant, Oceana specifically looks at the likely costs of its mercury use and the financial benefits of shifting to mercury-free technology.
Key findings of the report include:
· If the Filthy Five eliminated mercury use, nearly 4,400 pounds of reported mercury emissions would be eliminated each year. (It takes just 1/70th of a teaspoon to contaminate a 25 acre lake.) This does not include mercury that is “lost” and not monitored at the plants, an amount that has rivaled power plant emissions in some years.
· Although the cost of converting to mercury-free technology runs in the millions of dollars, the report shows the majority of costs could be recovered within five years due to energy savings, increased capacity and eliminating millions of dollars in fines, upgrades and cleanups.
· Plants that have shifted save millions of dollars due to increases in energy efficiency ranging between 25 and 37 percent. Since electricity can make up half of total production costs, these savings can vastly improve profitability.
· Conversion of the Filthy Five to mercury-free technology collectively would save the companies nearly $100 million dollars over five years in energy costs.
· Many plants also have increased production capacity by 20 to 80 percent in the process of converting, increasing their sales and profit.
· If just four of the Filthy Five increased capacity by 25 percent, their collective sales would increase by more than $300 million, and they would save another $14.6 million due to increased energy efficiency.
· Both the ERCO plant in Wisconsin and the Olin plant in Tennessee are the number one mercury air polluters in their states, while Olin in Georgia and Ashta in Ohio are the third largest sources of mercury air pollution in their respective states. PPG in West Virginia emits nearly twice as much mercury as the average power plant.
Chlorine is a chemical building-block used in everything from swimming pools to plastic tents to paper towels. Mercury-cell chlorine plants produce chlorine by pumping a saltwater solution through a vat of mercury, or a mercury-cell, which catalyzes an electrolytic chemical reaction. Through this process, mercury pollution is released into the air and waterways and tons of mercury wastes are generated and disposed of.
Most human mercury exposure results from eating contaminated fish. Mercury is primarily a neurotoxin, which means once in the body it attacks the central nervous system. It can cause serious health problems, especially in children, with very high exposure levels leading to brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures and speech problems. An EPA scientist has estimated that one in six women has enough mercury in her blood to pose serious neurological risks to her developing child. In the United States, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration have cautioned women of childbearing age and children to limit the amount of certain types of seafood they eat due to the risk of mercury poisoning. Governments around the world also have issued similar warnings. All five states where mercury-cell chlorine plants reside, have issued fish consumption advisories in the past because of high mercury levels found in their rivers and lakes.
“Mercury is a dangerous chemical that’s finding its way into our waters, and into the food we eat,” said Oceana’s Simon Mahan, the report’s lead author. “These five plants need to step up to the plate and act responsibly toward their employees and the communities in which they operate. Eliminating mercury from chlorine production is good for public health, good for the environment and – as Oceana’s report demonstrates – good for the company’s bottom line.”