A bill aimed at forcing the Olin Corp. chlorine plant in Charleston, Tenn., to shift from using mercury to cleaner technology within two years has Sen. Bob Corker looking for negotiation with the bill's sponsor.
Sen. Corker, R-Tenn., says the bill's two-year time frame could hurt local business.
"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."
Olin officials claim that the bill, called the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act, could cause the Charleston plant to shut down.
Olin's presence on the Hiwassee River was cited as a factor last year when Wacker Chemical Corp. announced it would build at $1 billion plant in Bradley Count to make hyperpure polycrystalline silicon, a component in solar cells.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to phase out the use of mercury in the manufacture of chlorine and caustic soda, and for other purposes.
About 95 percent of the other U.S. chlorine manufacturing plants already have switched to safer processes. The Charleston plant is one of four nationwide still using the mercury process.
Sen. Whitehouse filed his bill in July. It's now in the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
On Wednesday, Sen. Corker said his August recess has been busy with 31 town hall meetings and trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said he has not yet worked on negotiations with Sen. Whitehouse.
"This bill is not moving. It's not like it's active right now," he said. "We've met with industry representatives and others. ... We agree we need to move toward mercury-free production and realize that's in the best interest of our citizens."
He wouldn't say what he thinks is a realistic timeline to phase out the mercury process, but he said legislation should "create a sense of urgency."
"Certainly longer than two years," Sen. Corker said. "I have gotten a sense as to what is realistic. I'd rather keep that to myself right now as I'm negotiating."
Olin officials are fighting the bill.
"This proposed legislation, which would require any chlor alkali plant using mercury cell technology to cease production within just two years of the bill's enactment, would essentially force Olin to shut down its production facility in Charleston," spokeswoman Elaine Patterson said in a statement.
"Nearly 1,000 jobs are tied to Olin's plant in Charleston, including 450 plant, corporate and contract employees with an annual payroll of approximately $48 million," Ms. Patterson said.
The company also purchases $57 million in local goods and services and generates more than $1 million in property, sales and use taxes, she said.
Bradley County resident Suzanne Wisdom works with Oceana, an environmental group that has fought Olin's use of mercury for years. She said the legislation need not result in plant closures.
"Many plants have successfully converted and totally eliminated mercury releases -- including three plants owned by Olin Corporation," she said.
The plants are in Alabama, New York and Louisiana, she said.
The company sent letters to workers in June saying the bill could "result in the shutdown" of the Tennessee and Georgia chlor alkali facilities. The letter asked them to tell Congress to oppose the legislation. One announced an onsite letter-signing event.
The Charleston plant is historically Tennessee's top emitter of mercury. Olin publications state that mercury emissions were reduced 75 percent between 2006 and 2008.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records shows the plant in 2007 remained among the state's top three emitters of mercury, with more emissions than any of TVA's coal-burning power plants.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is now examining the bill. Alexander spokesman Jim Jeffries said Sen. Alexander is encouraged by ongoing discussions about the bill.
"Senator Alexander has helped author several pieces of legislation to limit mercury emissions, but has heard from Tennesseans who have concerns about this particular bill," Mr. Jeffries said.