June 06, 2020

HoltraChem sticks to its mercury

Bangor Daily News readers are probably familiar with the expression, “Actions speak louder than words.” Richard Barringer, employed as an “independent consultant” by HoltraChem, has barraged us with words in two op-eds (Jan. 16-17, 1999 and Jan. 3, 2000) and a lengthy full-page ad (Jan. 16-17, 1999) submitted to the BDN. While he touts the many steps taken by HoltraChem to protects its workers, the public, and the environment, the plant’s actions fall miserably short of this praise.

Far from a “national leader in this field,” HoltraChem uses an outdated, dangerous technology to produce chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), and other chemicals — a technology that is outlawed in other countries and which would never be used by a new chloralkali plant. In fact, HoltraChem owns a similar plant in Riegelwood, N.C. At that facility it has virtually eliminated all mercury risks to workers, the public, and the environment. The Riegelwood plant did what Maine People’s Alliance has called on Orrington plant managers to do for years — eliminate the use of mercury in its manufacturing process by converting to the cell membrane process. Todd Crawford of the N.C. division of Air Quality told MPA that he believes HoltraChem shut down its Riegelwood plant mercury cells on May 6, 1999. It resumed production a few months ago with mercury completely removed from the manufacturing process.

How, then, can Barringer claim that the Orrington plant is a national leader when it fails to meet standards set by other facilities in the same company? The BDN has criticized Barringer in the past for concentrating more on spin than fact. In response, Barringer asked “that the press and the public need to decide whether they wish to trust me as a messenger about HoltraChem’s effort and prospects”(BDN, Jan. 16-17, 1999). Can we indeed trust a spokesperson who neglects to mention the tremendously important fact that HoltraChem eliminated mercury in its North Carolina plant, but continues to use it here? Why does HoltraChem continue to expose Maine workers, Maine people, and the Maine environment to the many risks of mercury, while it consents to removing those risks for the people of North Carolina?

While HoltraChem’s production technology lags behind most of the industry, so does its mercury air monitoring program. Neither the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved HoltraChem’s methods for calculating fugitive emissions from its cell room. Just in the period 1992 to 1997 the plant cannot account for more than 2,000 pounds of mercury per year. Most of this mercury probably ended up in the air.

Regulators continue to doubt HoltraChem’s ability to monitor air emissions. An Aug. 10, 1999, letter from Frank Anscombe of the EPA to Arthur Dungan of The Chlorine Institute reads in part, “My present opinion is that the emissions estimate suggested by paper seems highly uncertain and runs the risk of being a significant underestimate.” We question how HoltraChem is complying with its mercury air pollution limit of 100 pounds when it cannot properly tack emissions at the site.

Perhaps most conspicuously missing from Barringer’s communications to the public is the vast historical and ongoing pollution of the Penobscot River by HoltraChem and its predecessors. The Land and Water Resources Council reported that the levels of mercury found in Penobscot River sediments measured the highest of any taken in Maine — and possibly in the entire United States. Maine People’s Alliance belives this mercury poses an imminent threat to public health and the environment. How can a company supposedly “committed to saving and enhancing the quality of the waters, lands, and air of our communities and of the state, for the benefit of current as well as future generations” fail to address such a huge problem?

Instead of devoting considerable resources to public relations and “independent consultants” who are handsomely rewarded by HoltraChem, the Orrington plant should take concrete steps to better protect workers, the public, and the environment. HoltraChem should commit to going mercury free by the end of the year. By taking such action, it can ensure that it will comply with the state’s standard for mercury air emissions, which should drop to nearly zero, and the 2004 deadline for eliminating its mercury discharge to the Penobscot River. It would also fulfill its company policy to “go beyond compliance, where existing laws and regulations are not, in our minds, adequate to assure protection of the global environment.” HoltraChem made the right decision in North Carolina when it decided to go mercury free. Let’s hope it will show the same consideration and respect for the people of Maine.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall is the executive director and Richard Judd is the former secretary and an active member of the Maine People’s Alliance.

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