Two environmental groups entered into a proposed consent decree settlement agreement filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia Monday aimed at limiting mercury pollution from a Marshall County chemical plant and to ensure further conservation efforts there.
The proposed agreement that the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club entered into with Eagle Natrium, LLC, would resolve the groups’ claims that the company violated its permit limits for mercury discharges into the Ohio River from its chlor-alkali facility in Natrium, in Marshall County, if the court approves it.
Per the proposed agreement, Eagle Natrium would install a mercury treatment system designed to treat up to 300 gallons of water per minute, provide OVEC and the Sierra Club quarterly progress reports on the status of the mercury treatment system, pay a $25,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury and a $190,000 sum to the West Virginia Land Trust to fund an Ohio River methylmercury reduction project.
Eagle Natrium would also pay attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by OVEC and the Sierra Club totaling $171,924.
OVEC and the Sierra Club filed a suit in August 2019 under the Clean Water Act alleging that Eagle Natrium’s chlor-alkali plant was the only remaining chlor-alkali plant in the U.S. that used mercury cells as opposed to production methods not using mercury.
Eagle Natrium manufactures chlor-alkali and derivatives like chlorine, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid and hydrogen. The facility’s products are used throughout the U.S. in municipal drinking water, food and beverage, textiles, energy and other sectors.
The suit further alleged that, starting in April 2014, Eagle Natrium regularly discharged mercury levels exceeding its average monthly permit limits imposed by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection administratively extended in 2013.
The suit noted that, based on mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl levels, the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisory Workgroup issued a fish consumption advisory of one meal per month for two types of sport fish (freshwater drum and sauger) that are captured recreationally in the Ohio River from the Montgomery Locks and Dam to the Belleville Locks and Dam, a river segment that includes outlets from the Natrium plant.
“Our lawsuit successfully led to the issuance of a new permit and corrective action by the facility that will meaningfully reduce mercury pollution levels that contaminate the Ohio River and threaten the health of nearby communities,” Karan Ireland, West Virginia Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative, said in a statement.
“It is unfortunate that citizens had to once more do the West Virginia DEP’s job, but today’s settlement means we will have less polluted water for the five million or so people who obtain their drinking water from the Ohio River,” OVEC Executive Director Vivian Stockman said in a statement. “Fishermen, boaters, and the wildlife that use the river will be better off. OVEC looks forward to the day when this antiquated technology is retired once and for all.”
Eagle Natrium, a subsidiary of Houston-based Westlake Chemical Corporation, denies that its discharges cause or contribute to methylmercury in the Ohio River, according to the proposed consent decree, which the court may put into effect after a 45-day review and comment period.
“Though Eagle Natrium vigorously denies the allegations in the lawsuit, the company is pleased to enter this settlement that will avoid the costs of litigation and allow the company to continue to focus its resources on serving its customers and ensuring compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” said Chip Swearngan, director of corporate communications and government relations.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration on its website lists $32,772 in fines for Eagle Natrium in response to what the agency says were violations involving rules for safely managing highly hazardous chemicals stemming from a July incident onsite. Swearngan said Westlake has responded to OSHA with a denial of those citations and is engaged in ongoing negotiations to resolve the citations with OSHA.
OSHA also assessed Eagle Natrium more than $17,000 in penalties after an August 2016 chlorine leak at the plant that resulted in two plant worker hospitalizations and evacuations of neighboring communities Proctor and Kent. That leak happened under Axiall Corporation’s ownership of the plant, which Westlake bought later in 2016.