CHARLESTON, Tenn. -- Business and elected officials are asking for help delaying a proposed federal regulation that would affect a manufacturing plant here and, they say, result in the loss of 1,000 jobs.
A congressional bill would force Olin Corp. in Charleston, Tenn., and three other U.S. chlorine manufacturers to stop using mercury and convert to cleaner technology in two years. But plant officials said that's not enough time to redesign and reconstruct the plant to do away with the use of mercury, which now is used to make chlorine.
"Essentially, we would have to tear down this facility," said Elaine Patterson, the Charleston plant's spokeswoman.
Plant manager Dave Fairchild said some small plant components could be reused, but it would, for the most part, be a complete change of technology.
The Charleston plant is the largest mercury-based factory left in the United States, and it is a major producer of chlorine and caustic soda. It also was a major attraction for Wacker Chemical Corp., which announced it would build a 500-worker, $1 billion plant in Bradley Count to make hyperpure polycrystalline silicon, a component in solar cells. The Olin plant will supply some chemicals to Wacker.
The Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, county and city mayors in the region, Gov. Phil Bredesen and several local legislators have written letters in support of amending the bill, or giving the Charleston plant more time.
"The process they have over there has got to be changed," Gov. Bredesen said this week. "What the EPA is pushing is absolutely right ... but my only question is if two years is a proper length of time."
The plant's strongest support is coming from its 300 workers, who've also written and signed letters.
"If this job was to go away, I know it wouldn't be easy to replace," said employee Greg Prugh.
The 43-year-old father of teenage girls moved to Tennessee after been laid off in from a job in Clearwater, Fla.
"It took me three and a half or four years to find a good job here," he said. "And a good-paying job. My girls play select soccer. I've got one getting ready to go to college. And I just put one in a car. I couldn't afford that if I wasn't working here."
But mercury concerns have prompted Oceana, a nonprofit environmental group, to back the bill as it is written.
Suzanne Wisdom, a Cleveland, Tenn., coordinator for Oceana, said the group has never suggested the plant should close. But the company should shift technologies, she said.
"As of today, Olin Charleston still hasn't announced a plan or commitment to switch to mercury-free technology," she said. "The residents near Olin deserve to have an answer and not the same excuses that we have been getting for several years."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D- Rhode Island, and Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, D-Illinois, passed out the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Oct. 21, where it was amended to include a timeline of five years.
Sen. Whitehouse's companion bill in the Senate, still carries the two-year timeline and now is in the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is a member of the committee.
"The greatest concern about mercury surrounds its effects on the early development of the fetus and on later childhood development," said Rep. Schakowsky, soon after her bill passed out of committee. "Through no fault of their own, but rather the selfishness of these companies, children born after being exposed to the toxin will likely fight learning disabilities their entire life."
Ms. Patterson with Olin said 2015 is "a more feasible timeframe" for companies to decide whether they will rebuild or close.
Ms. Wisdom said the two-year timeframe in the bill should not be a problem for Olin.
"The timeframe the bill sets forth is possible," she said. "Olin has seen this change coming for a long time and hopefully they have planned for it."
She said Olin could achieve bottom-line benefits with increased energy efficiency, increased capacity and lower wastewater treatment costs by converting to mercury-free production technology at both its Tennessee and Augusta, Ga., plants.
Olin's plant in Tennessee has traditionally been the state's largest single source of mercury air emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Index. In 2005, air quality tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council found levels of airborne mercury near the plant almost six times the level the EPA deemed safe.
The plant had the second-highest ambient air mercury level found in Natural Resources Defense Council tests that summer, according to Linda Greer, director of the council's health program. NRDC, like Oceana, has campaigned heavily for government to force the Charleston plant to close or change technology.
Elsewhere around the country, about 95 percent of the other U.S. chlorine manufacturing plants already have switched to safer processes.
Ms. Patterson said one of those was Olin's St. Gabriel, La., plant, a move that required a $170 million redesign and rebuild. In Charleston, Olin has spent $43 million since 2006 and reduced the plant's mercury releases by more than 75 percent, she said.
In support of Olin, Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said the company's "forced abrupt closure ...would be a regional economic disaster."
"Olin by itself has a local payroll of $31 million with an average salary in excess of $65,000," Mr. Davis said in a letter to Gov. Bredesen, seeking help with the Tennessee congressional delegation. "They pay over $1 million in property, sales and use taxes while purchasing $71 million each year in local goods and services."
The letter also was signed by nine other county and municipal officials from the region. In September, Gov. Bredesen penned a letter to U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., referencing the letter from county and city mayors.
"Apart from this issue, the future of the Olin facility is bright, and it is slated to become a direct, pipeline supplier of chemicals to the proposed Wacker Chemical plant in Cleveland, Tenn., when it comes online," the governor's letter states. "I know you understand the value of those jobs has never been more important than it is now."
Rep. Gordon could not be reached for comment, but his spokesman, Kinsey Kiriakos, said an amendment gives the four remaining mercury plants until 2015 to complete conversions or until 2013 to close.
Wacker Chemical officials could not be reached for comment on how the impending legislation might impact the plant's construction timeline, but Wacker's Web site states the timeline is still undecided and dependent on a market for its intended product.
"We have not yet determined when we will actually start with the construction phase of this project," states the Web site in a question and answer page. "Timing and the details largely depend on the further development of polysilicon demand."
The Cleveland-Bradley County Chamber of Commerce also wrote a letter to Sen. Alexander, seeking support to modify the timeline. Alexander spokesman Jim Jeffries said the senator is encouraged by ongoing discussions about the bill.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he's also encouraged compromise.
"What we are trying to do is figure out a way to give them an appropriate time frame to change," Sen. Corker told a Bradley County town hall meeting group recently.
"We're not talking 2020 but in the next several years, to do so in a way that, while we're making this change, we don't jeopardize the livelihood of the people here in Bradley County."
Brenda Alford, who has worked at Olin for 12 years, said she can't imagine Charleston without Olin.
"I'm worried for our homes, for our community," she said. "It (the legislation) will affect so many people, even new businesses moving in."
These mayors signed a letter supporting Olin Corp.
Benton Mayor Jerry Stephens
Charleston Mayor Walter Goode
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland
Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey
McMinn County Mayor John Gentry
Meigs County Mayor Ken Jones
Polk County Executive Mike Stinnett.
Last mercury plants
The four remaining plants in the United States are:
* Olin's facility in Charleston, Tenn.
* Olin's Facility in Augusta, Ga.
* ASHTA's facility in Ashtabula, Ohio
* PPG's facility in Natnum, W.Va.
Source: Olin, Oceana