Contamination Shows Need to Phase Out Old, Hazardous Production Process

CHICAGO (April 4, 2006) -- Independent air quality tests have uncovered dangerously high levels of toxic mercury in areas surrounding major chlorine chemical plants in Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, each of which uses a hazardous, outmoded production process. Similar facilities also operate in Ohio and Wisconsin, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which carried out the tests.

Operators of the facilities can account for only 29 out of the 159 tons (just 18 percent) of the mercury they used from 2000 to 2004. The rest appears to have escaped through leaks and other so-called "fugitive" releases. Despite the enormous discrepancy, the Environmental Protection Agency recently issued rules allowing plant owners to go on ignoring the missing mercury emissions.

"Our monitoring found dangerous and excessive mercury concentrations in the air near most of the chlorine plants, which means plant employees and residents of nearby communities may be at risk for mercury poisoning," said Linda E. Greer, Ph.D., Director of NRDC's Health Program. "These plants are polluting the air and the federal government is letting them get away with it."

Plants listed in the new report, entitled Lost and Found: Missing Mercury from Chemical Plants Pollutes Air and Water, include Pioneer Americas in St. Gabriel, Louisiana; Olin Corporation in Charleston, Tennessee; PPG Industries in Lake Charles, Louisiana; and the recently-shuttered Occidental Chemical plant in New Castle, Delaware. The plants use huge quantities of liquid mercury to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda (known as lye), which, in turn, are used to make paper products, detergent and soap, and plastics.

The report was released at a news conference today in Chicago, where NRDC and Oceana -- an advocacy organization that works to protect and restore the world's oceans -- joined with local residents at a rally in front of the Chlorine Institute's annual meeting at the Westin Hotel, calling on the organization to limit membership to companies that don't use the hazardous mercury-based production processes. Most of the U.S. chlorine industry already uses clean, non-mercury production techniques.

"Once it's in the body, mercury can limit normal brain activity and nervous system functions," Greer said. "It is especially dangerous for developing infants and small children and can cause decreased motor skills and learning disabilities at even low levels of exposure."

Eight chlorine-producing plants in the United States are still operating with the so-called mercury chlor-alkali technology. Of the six facilities monitored by NRDC, Pioneer Louisiana and Olin Tennessee were the top two polluters, with air concentrations far above EPA safe levels for long-term exposure. Mercury contamination at two of the other facilities also exceeded safe levels, indicating plant employees and residents of nearby communities may be at risk. All plants tested had mercury pollution well above background levels in the surrounding area, including the two that did not violate EPA safe levels.

"The high mercury levels warrant immediate, comprehensive monitoring at all mercury chlor-alkali facilities and any surrounding communities, as well as more aggressive federal and state regulation of these plants," Greer said. "It's time for these companies to put this dangerous, outmoded process to behind them and upgrade these plants to clean technology."

The plants are required to track and report emissions as they buy more mercury to replace lost quantities, but NRDC consistently found a discrepancy between the small amount that plants reported they lost and the much greater quantities the industry had to buy to replenish its stock.

"All of these tons of mercury aren't just disappearing, they're going somewhere," Greer said. "And where they ultimately end up is on the dinner tables and in the lungs of American families."