Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Copyright 2005 The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)  
The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

August 14, 2005, Sunday


LENGTH: 2675 words

HEADLINE: Marshall plant state's top mercury polluter

BYLINE: By Ken Ward Jr.

 NATRIUM -- Barely a mile of W.Va. 2 runs between the two green-and-white road signs that mark Natrium. No one lives here. It's barely a wide spot in the road, tucked between a Marshall County hillside and the Ohio River.

Here, just north of New Martinsville, PPG Industries operates a sprawling chemical plant.

The facility employs 650 workers to make chlorine, the building block of most modern chemical industries. It also is West Virginia's largest source of mercury, a toxic metal that can poison the brain and is especially dangerous to children and developing fetuses.

Every year, the PPG plant emits more than 1,200 pounds of mercury into the air, according to company reports filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That ranks its emissions a full one-third greater than the state's next biggest mercury polluter. American Electric Power's John Amos plant outside St. Albans reported 902 pounds of mercury air emissions in 2003, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

The PPG plant makes chlorine by pumping salty water through vats of pure mercury. It's one of only nine U.S. plants that still use this 111-year-old process.

Like the other similar facilities, PPG's Natrium plant faces increasing scrutiny from environmental groups that are worried about mercury's effects on public health.

The reason? These facilities -- called chlor-alkali plants because they also make an alkaline material called caustic soda -- are a little-known but major source of mercury pollution.

Nationally, mercury reduction efforts have focused on coal-fired power plants. Overall, the power plant sector reported 10 times more total mercury air emissions than chlorine plants. However, there were only nine chlor-alkali plants when the 2003 toxic emissions reports were filed with the EPA. There were 500 coal-fired power plants.

On average, each chlor-alkali plant discharged nearly 13 times more mercury into the air than the average power plant, according to EPA data.

Nationally, the average coal-fired power plant reported 84 pounds of mercury emissions in 2003. The average chlorine plant reported more than 1,074 pounds. Of the 100 power plants with the most mercury emissions, the average total air discharges was 484 pounds -- less than half the average from a chlorine plant, according to a computer-assisted review of EPA data.

And those numbers are just what plants report to the EPA. There is ample evidence that they actually emit far more mercury than that. Federal records and industry reports indicate that the chlor-alkali industry loses perhaps 65 tons of mercury every year.

This missing mercury could be in the air, in the water, in the soil, or lost somewhere inside the plants themselves. No one really knows.

"The fate of all of the mercury ... remains somewhat of an enigma," the EPA said in a December 2003 regulatory notice.

If even half of this lost mercury is released into the air or water, chlor-alkali plants easily would rival coal-fired power plants as the largest total source of mercury pollution in the United States.

Natrium is the Greek word for sodium. The name stuck to this spot in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle because of the vast salt deposit buried a mile underground.

In the late 1930s, PPG was looking for a spot to build a new chlorine and caustic plant. PPG was the nation's first successful plate glass company. PPG got into the chemicals business to provide the materials it needed for glass making. Today, the Pittsburgh-based company employs 31,800 people in 20 countries and has $ 9.5 billion in annual sales. Last year, PPG reported $ 683 million in profits.

At the same time PPG was searching for a site for its new plant, pressure was mounting for the United States to enter World War II. The government started its own plans to build a major chlorine-caustic plant at the Ohio River site.

The military needed chlorine for disinfectant and wound treatment. The plant also made chlorine gas for the production of the poisonous gas phosgene, said Frank Gilmore, a longtime Natrium plant official and now a PPG government and community relations representative.

Production kicked off in 1943. Two years later, when the war ended, PPG bought the plant.

When the plant opened, it could produce 250 tons of chlorine per day. Expansions have increased output to more than 1,000 tons per day.

The chlorine production takes place in a simple corrugated metal building. Broad, open windows let drivers see from the highway into the "cell room," a football field-sized production area with huge ventilation fans on both ends.

Chlorine makers call the overall production line a "mercury cell." Basically, it is row after long row of rubber-lined troughs covered with what look like jumbo car battery terminals on top.

PPG installed its mercury cell in 1957.

"This has been in continuous operation since then," says Scott Pleskanko, the plant's director of environmental health and safety."

To make chlorine, PPG follows a simple process devised in 1894: Salty water, or brine, is pumped through the mercury in the troughs. Electricity also is pumped in, to stimulate a chemical reaction that coverts the brine into chlorine, hydrogen and caustic soda.

At power plants, mercury is an unwanted byproduct of burning coal. At Natrium, it's a key part of the manufacturing process.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element. It is used widely in industry because it conducts electricity, responds to temperature and pressure changes and forms alloys with other metals.

Scientists learned much about mercury's dangers from two tragic cases of large-scale poisoning in the 20th century.

In the 1950s, a Chisso Corp. chemical plant in Japan dumped untreated inorganic mercury into Minamata Bay. Residents ate seafood poisoned by the dumping. More than 900 people died, and thousands more were made sick.

In 1971 in Iraq, seed grain from a U.S. company that had treated it with a mercury-containing fungicide was inadvertently used to make homemade bread. Of the 6,500 people who were hospitalized, 459 died.

Today, concerns about mercury's adverse health effects are growing and getting more attention.

Depending on the dose, human health effects can include subtle loss of sensory and cognitive ability, tremors, inability to walk, or death.

A 2000 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the population at highest risk is children of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood during pregnancy. Children are at risk of having to struggle to keep up in school or needing remedial classes or special education, the study found.

Recent studies indicate that as many as 600,000 of the 4 million U.S. babies born every year have been exposed to levels of mercury significant enough to lower their IQs.

Another study, by Mount Sinai Medical School, estimated that mercury pollution costs the U.S. economy $ 8.7 billion a year in lost productivity by workers exposed as children.

When mercury is emitted into the air, it can fall with rain, enter water bodies and move up the food chain to humans. As it does so, it builds up, so that concentrations in food are hundreds of thousands of times as high as the concentration in the water.

Of particular concern is the fact that mercury becomes more concentrated as it passes from a mother to her fetus.

In West Virginia, residents statewide are cautioned to limit the locally caught fish they eat to avoid mercury poisoning. When they issued this warning in December 2004, state officials cited a two-year study that found high levels of mercury in 78 percent of the fish samples tested.

At the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's headquarters in Charleston, officials searched through box after box to find an air pollution permit for the mercury cell process at PPG's Natrium plant.

"I'm not sure we have one," said John Benedict, director of the DEP's Division of Air Quality.

For the most part, mercury emissions from PPG and other chlorine plants go unregulated by state and federal authorities.

Starting in 1975, the EPA limited plant-wide daily mercury air emissions from such facilities to 2,300 grams, or about 5 pounds. But, the EPA never required companies to actually monitor their emissions on a regular basis to determine if they complied. Instead, companies could perform a one-time test to prove that their emissions were within the limit. Then, companies agreed to follow a collection of "housekeeping" measures meant to limit fugitive mercury emissions and leaks.

At the Natrium plant, PPG performed that EPA-required test in 1988, according to DEP records. Each year since then, the company has reported its fugitive mercury emissions at the federal limit.

In 2003, the Bush administration's EPA changed these rules. It eliminated the 2,300-gram-per-day plant-wide emission limit. Today, there is no federal limit on mercury emissions from cell rooms at chlor-alkali plants.

The EPA also made the housekeeping practices required under the previous rule optional. Companies could ignore the practices, if they instead agreed to continuous monitoring of their mercury cell rooms.

Lastly, the EPA declined to make mercury-based chlorine plants comply with the same industry pollution rules that nonmercury chlorine factories must follow.

Jon Devine, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been monitoring the EPA's chlorine plant rules for years.

Devine petitioned the EPA to reconsider its 2003 rules and challenged those rules in federal court. Currently, the EPA is re-examining the rules and trying to figure out if it can more accurately measure the real mercury emissions from cell rooms.

"EPA needs to take more seriously the pollution from the mercury cell chlor-alkali sector, which regularly loses as much or more mercury from its manufacturing process than power plants emit to the air," Devine wrote in a February 2004 petition to the EPA.

Earlier this year, the EPA rule changes got widespread media attention when the Washington-based conservation group Oceana issued a report about chlor-alkali plant pollution. Oceana focused on questions about what happens to the massive amounts of mercury that chlor-alkali plants take in, but do not report discharging or shipping out.

In its 63-page report, Oceana noted an EPA report that said nine chlorine plants in the United States consumed 79 tons of mercury in 2000. That same year, those plants reported discharging only 14 tons of mercury, the EPA report said.

This mercury is not used up on the chlorine-making process. Only small amounts end up as impurities in plant products. Because mercury is an element, it does not break down into something else.

"They had 'lost' 65 tons, far more than the entire combined mercury releases of all power plants in the country," Oceana said in its report, released in January.

PPG officials disagree. They agree with the theories of the Chlorine Institute, an industry trade association. The Chlorine Institute argues that the missing mercury has seeped into plant pipes and other equipment and is stuck there.

PPG is working with the Institute and the EPA to come up with a better estimate of the plant's fugitive emissions.

"We believe our numbers are significantly less," Pleskanko said. "We've got some data that says it may be in the single digits."

Oceana noted that when one chlor-alkali plant closed in Maine, 33 tons of mercury were still missing after pipes and equipment were cleaned out.

Much of W.Va. 2 is an industrial corridor: a huge Consol Energy coal loadout, the Bayer and Columbia chemical plants, and a string of coal-fired power plants owned by American Electric Power. In terms of mercury emissions, PPG remains to top polluter among these facilities.

PPG releases four times more mercury into the air than AEP's Mitchell or Kammer power plants just up the road near Moundsville, according to EPA data.

In terms of total air emissions, PPG also is among the biggest polluters in the state. The plant's 1 million pounds of air emissions rank it 13th in the state in 2003, EPA records show.

Inside the plant, PPG officials say they are doing a good job of controlling and, in some cases, reducing their pollution -- especially emissions of mercury.

Some of the plant's mercury emissions come through planned discharges from smokestacks. But much of the emissions come from mercury that evaporates during routine operations and escapes through unmonitored ventilation systems and other leaks -- so-called "fugitive emissions."

PPG recently spent about $ 4 million to install a new line that includes upgraded covers on the mercury cell troughs, a move that reduces fugitive leaks.

PPG installed a grated, hard-rubber floor around the mercury units. Mercury leaks will drip through, onto a new coated floor that is easier to clean. Previously, mercury soaked into a concrete floor and evaporated in the heat.

"We've tried to tighten up our systems greatly," Pleskanko said.

A February EPA report, though, found that the Natrium plant generates mercury air emissions as great as other chlor-alkali plants that are much bigger. Of the nine plants studied, the Natrium plant is the second smallest in terms of production. It is the second biggest in terms of air emissions, the EPA report said.

During interviews in May, PPG officials said they could not switch the Natrium plant to a nonmercury chlorine production process. They said the nonmercury process makes caustic that is too weak for sale to their customers. It also uses more electricity, meaning production costs would go up, PPG officials said.

Across the country, 90 percent of U.S. chlorine is made using mercury-free technology, according to the Oceana report.

The European Commission is requiring a phase-out of mercury use by chlorine factories on that continent by 2007.

Earlier this month, PPG made a surprise announcement: It plans to replace the mercury cells at its other chlor-alkali plant -- in Lake Charles, La. -- with nonmercury technology by mid-2007. In a news release, PPG Vice President Michael McGarry said the newer technology uses about 25 percent less electricity. The new equipment also will reduce maintenance and operating costs, McGarry said.

"Discontinuing the use of mercury at Lake Charles is in line with our company's goal of continually improving our environmental performance," McGarry said. "In addition, this project will result in ongoing cost savings for PPG while enabling us to continue providing customers with premium-grade caustic soda."

The move, expected to cost PPG an average of $ 30 million per year over three years, eliminates Louisiana's top source of mercury pollution, according to articles in local media.

Jackie Savitz, pollution campaign director for Oceana, said, "PPG's commitment to eliminate the use of mercury at its Lake Charles chlorine facility is great news for the citizens of Louisiana.

"We hope this step will soon be duplicated by eight other plants that continue to use 19th century, mercury-polluting technology to produce chlorine, including PPG's New Martinsville, West Virginia, chlorine facility," Savitz said.

On the day as the Louisiana announcement, Pleskanko of PPG's Natrium facility, said, "At the present time, we don't really have any plans to do anything here. But at the same time, we continue to evaluate all of the aspects for all of the options."

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