St. Gabriel Chlorine Plant to Eliminate Mercury-Based Technology

The Associated Press

ST. GABRIEL, La. (AP) — Two of Louisiana's biggest mercury polluters are now converting to cleaner technology that will not use mercury in their chlorine-making process.

On Tuesday Pioneer Companies Inc., a Houston-based chemical company, said it would stop using mercury-cell technology by the end of 2008 at its St. Gabriel chlorine plant.

The technology is outdated and it has been blamed for adding significant amounts of mercury into the environment.

Last August, PPG Industries Inc. said it would replace its mercury-based technology with membrane-cell technology at its Lake Charles plant by mid-2007.

"These guys were kind of dinosaurs with 90 percent of the industry using mercury-free technology," said Jackie Savitz, a campaign director for Oceana, a national ocean advocacy group that has led the fight to get chlorine makers to stop using the old technology.

There are five plants left in the nation that use the mercury-cell technology, Savitz said.

"We feel like we're halfway there," Savitz said.

The method for making chlorine in this fashion was devised 100 years ago. Pumps push electrically charged salty water through a vat of mercury to make the chlorine, and the mercury is then released into the air.

David Gasper, the plant manager of the Pioneer facility, said the new technology will "absolutely" be cleaner. The plant, which was built in 1970 and employs 113 workers, expects to increase its production by 25 percent under the $142 million expansion plan.

Mercury settles in waterways and accumulates in fish. In humans who eat those fish, the metal can cause neurological and developmental problems, particularly in fetuses and children.

Savitz said the Pioneer plant is responsible for about 18 percent of Louisiana's mercury emissions. She said estimates determined the plant emitted about 779 pounds of mercury into the air and about 15 pounds into the water in 2005.

By comparison, the PPG plant released about 1,211 pounds of mercury into the air and 9 pounds into the water in 2005, Savitz said, citing estimates based on Environmental Protection Agency and industry data.