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PPG seeks variance in mercury pollution

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- PPG Industries is asking for a major water permit variance that would allow its Northern Panhandle plant to avoid cutting by more than 90 percent the mercury it discharges into the Ohio River.

PPG sought the variance in papers filed earlier this week with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state panel that sets water quality standards for river.

On Tuesday, ORSANCO opened a 45-day public comment period on the proposal. After that, the commission's standards committee will develop a recommendation and hold a second 45-day comment period before the commission makes a final decision.

PPG officials are trying to avoid having to comply with new regulations, effective in October 2013, that eliminate pollution "mixing zones" for chemicals like mercury, which becomes accumulates in tissue and becomes more concentrates as it moves up the food chain.

Mixing zones are areas downstream from pollution discharges where water quality limits would not apply, giving discharges the ability to be diluted by river water before having to meet regulatory standards.

At issue at PPG is the facility's discharge of toxic mercury from its production of chlorine by pumping salt water through vats, or cells, of pure mercury. Most of the U.S. chlorine industry now uses newer technology without mercury.

Built in 1957, the PPG plant is located along the Ohio River just north of New Martinsville. It is a large generator of both water and air emissions of mercury, which is a powerful neurotoxin.

After Maryland threatened to sue PPG, the company agreed to major reductions in its mercury air emissions, but has balked at the notion of switching the facility to a mercury-free production process. The facility employs more than 500 workers.

In papers filed with ORSANCO, PPG says that "after several years of diligent effort," the company believes its permit limits for water discharges of mercury "cannot be reasonably achieved" without a mixing zone.

Generally, ORSANCO no longer allows mixing zones for mercury and similar chemicals. But last year -- at the suggestion of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and PPG -- the commission adopted a rule allowing variances to continue mixing zones. In West Virginia, state regulators have repeatedly helped PPG by backing off tougher water pollution limits for mercury.

The first public comment period by ORSANCO runs through Dec. 15.

Comments should be received in writing at the Commission headquarters, ORSANCO  5735 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, OH  45230. To submit a comment by email, submit your comment to pcs@orsanco.org. For more information on the variance request, visit ORSANCO's website at www.orsanco.org or call ORSANCO offices at 513-231-7719.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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