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Olin Corp. in Bradley County is going mercury-free in 2012 with the help of stimulus bonds.

The decision, announced Friday, made Cleveland, Tenn., resident Suzanne Wisdom want to dance.

"We're really excited about the timeline," said Wisdom, a field organizer for Oceana Tennessee. For years, Wisdom has rallied the community to pressure Olin to change its process for manufacturing caustic soda and chlorine to one that doesn't use mercury.

Joseph D. Rupp, chairman, president and CEO of Olin, said in a statement Friday that initiatives such as $41 million in federal Recovery Zone Facility Bonds, as well as customer pressure, helped persuade the company to invest about $160 million in capital improvements and technology changes at its Charleston, Tenn., facility.

"Over the past 18 months we have experienced a steady increase in the number of our customers unwilling to accept our products manufactured using mercury cell technology," Rupp said.

The change also will lower operating costs and help the plant produce higher quality products, he said.

Olin has been Tennessee's No. 1 or No. 2 emitter of mercury for years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory. In 2005, air quality tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council found levels of airborne mercury near the plant almost six times greater than the EPA says is safe.

But Olin and two other chlorine manufacturers resisted changing to a safer process, even though EPA said about 95 percent of the other U.S. manufacturers already had switched.

Olin officials said changing to a new process was too costly. They warned that if pending legislation forced them to switch, the plant might have to close, idling as many as 1,000 workers there and at other local plants dependent on Olin products.

Friday's announcement changes that. Olin's 350 jobs will remain in Charleston and Cleveland, said spokeswoman Elaine Patterson. And companies such as Arch Chemical and Wacker Chemical will have readily available products for their own manufacturing processes.

Olin also said it will revamp its Augusta, Ga., facility in 2012 to be mercury-free.

WELCOME NEWS

Bradley Mayor Gary Davis called Olin one of Bradley County's largest employers and "an outstanding corporate citizen."

"I am excited to learn of their decision to continue to invest in this community," he said.

FINAL FOUR

The four remaining chlorine manufacturers still using mercury 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.

Sources: Olin, Oceana

Davis aide Dan Howell said the mayor's office in recent months had "encouraged the federal government, through our state senators, to give [Olin] time to make the conversion. We felt all along they were a good corporate citizen. ... They just needed time to do it."

Legislation introduced in 2009 would have required the plant to convert its process within two years of the bill's passage. The U.S. House of Representatives amended it to five years. Olin officials said 2015 was "a more feasible time frame" for the four remaining chlorine manufacturers using mercury to decide whether to rebuild or close.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Matt Kisber, Tennessee's Economic and Community Development commissioner, also applauded Olin's decision and pointed to Wacker Chemical's planned site adjacent to Olin as one of the key factors for the change.

"Olin's announcement is proof positive that focusing economic development efforts up and down the supply chain can both create and retain jobs," Kisber said in a prepared statement. Olin is expected to be a chlorine supplier for Wacker's $1 billion polysilicon production facility.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said offering Olin the $41 million in Recovery Zone Facility Bonds, funded by the federal stimulus, "is a great example of the state partnering with an existing business to develop the conditions for expansion and additional capital investment."

For Sherry Neidich, 65, the news means she won't have to think anymore about moving.

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "I live nearby the plant, and what really got me was going to [EPA's] website where you can check your air pollution. I decided it's probably dangerous to live around here."

She and her husband had bought property in a place where they could move their horses and not worry for their grandchildren.

"Now we don't have to move," she said. "We've lived here 38 years, and we really don't want to move."

Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6346.

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