Sustained Outrage

PPG plant seeks variance for mercury pollution

A Senior design engineer Dave Bush inspects the sprawling mercury cell room at PPG Industries chemical plant in Natrium, Marshall County. Photo from 2005 courtesy PPG.

If we needed more proof that PPG Industries isn’t going mercury-free at its chlorine manufacturing plant in Natrium, W.Va., just check out the new public notice issued yesterday by the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission:

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is requesting public comment on a request for a variance from its Pollution Control Standards provision which prohibits mixing zones for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern beginning no later than October 16, 2013. The request for a variance was received from PPG Industries, Natrium, WV facility and is in regard to their discharge of mercury to the Ohio River.

My friend Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville broke the story, explaining:

A West Virginia chlorine manufacturing plant is seeking to avoid a 90 percent cut in the amount of mercury that it’s allowed to dump into the Ohio River.

At issue is a 2009 decision by the commission to phase out what it calls “mixing zones” down river from industrial plants that discharge chemicals that build up in the environment, such as mercury. Mixing zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance from factory outfalls, after effluent has mixed with river water and become diluted.

Now, regular readers know that PPG is a huge source of mercury pollution, because of its continued use what critics say is an outdated technology. Activists have targeted the facility and PPG has faced permit challenges and litigation over its mercury emissions, but has received friendly treatment from West Virginia regulators, who have repeatedly extended the company’s compliance deadlines.

But faced with a lawsuit from the state of Maryland — which alleged PPG’s air emissions were polluting that state’s waterways with mercury — PPG entered into a deal to make major pollution reductions and to consider other steps, with a goal of eliminating all mercury emissions. Jim Bruggers reports the company has made progress:

In correspondence with the commission posted on the commission’s Website, PPG officials said they have been reducing their mercury discharges …  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show that the plant cut its mercury discharges from 32 pounds in 2004 to 17 pounds in 2010.

Still, PPG argues in its request for a variance from the new ORSANCO rule that “after several years of diligent effort,” the company believes its permit limits for mercury “cannot be reasonably achieved” without a mixing zone.

It’s also worth pointing out that the ORSANCO rules for water quality standards only allow for variances because of a push for such language from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and PPG.

And folks who have followed this issue for a while may recall some interesting behind-the-scenes discussions by industry attorney David Flannery, an ORSANCO commissioner from Wets Virginia, PPG lawyer Dave Yaussy, and ORSANCO executive director Alan Vicory, aimed at ensuring PPG could continue having a mixing zone. As we reported (subscription required) after a state Environmental Quality Board hearing in December 2005:

In Thursday’s hearing, PPG lawyers also challenged part of the permit renewal language issued by the DEP. Company officials asked the DEP to grant the plant a “mixing zone” – an area downstream from the plant where water quality limits would not apply – to allow mercury discharges to be diluted by the river water.

Matt Sweeney, a DEP permit engineer, refused. Sweeney said mixing zones are not allowed for bio-accumulative pollutants like mercury under multi-state water pollution limits, set by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO. PPG lawyer David Yaussy brought ORSANCO Executive Director Alan Vicory to Thursday’s hearing to testify for the company.

Currently, the ORSANCO rules grandfather in mixing zones for existing bio-accumulative discharges that already had mixing zones before the rule was passed in 2003.

Vicory told the board that he personally did not think that was the original intent of the 2003 rule. Instead, Vicory said, he believes ORSANCO meant to grandfather in mixing zones for any existing bio-accumulative discharges – whether they already had mixing zones or not.

Vicory said that earlier this month ORSANCO’s standards committee asked commission staff to write a new rule to “clarify” the mixing zone policy.

That happened, Vicory said, after David Flannery – an industry lawyer in Charleston who also represents West Virginia on the commission and chairs the ORSANCO standards committee – brought the PPG permit appeal to Vicory’s attention.

Under cross-examination by Lovett, Vicory said Flannery had called him and asked him if he would be willing to discuss the issue with Yaussy.

Questioned by DEP’s Lazell, Vicory acknowledged the state had sent ORSANCO a copy of PPG’s draft permit and the commission never raised the issue during a public comment period.

Vicory also said he and ORSANCO would support the DEP’s refusal to give PPG a mixing zone, because it is a more stringent permit limit and more protective of water quality.

In fact, Vicory said, ORSANCO has adopted a policy that advocates elimination of all discharge of bio-accumulative pollutants like mercury into the Ohio River within 10 years.

According to ORSANCO:

The Commission is accepting comments from the public from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, 2011. Subsequently, the Commission’s Pollution Control Standards Committee will consider the request and supporting information, as well as public comments received, and develop a recommendation as to final disposition of the variance request. Following development of that recommendation, a second 45-day public comment period will be held prior to the full Commission’s final decision.

Comments should be received in writing at the Commission headquarters, 5735 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45230 or by email at pcs@orsanco.org no later than Dec. 15, 2011. For more information on the variance request, visit ORSANCO’s website or call ORSANCO offices at 513-231-7719.