Italian Chlorine Producers Funded to Replace Mercury Process

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - The European Commission has authorized subsidies to two chlorine producers in Italy to set up new plants allowing for mercury-free chlorine production. The companies will end production based on mercury technology and introduce a process for which no mercury is needed.

Solvay Rosignano, the third largest plant in Italy, is due to receive €13.5 million (US$17.8 million) aid to promote a €48 million (US$ 63 million) investment. It is located at Rosignano, in the province of Livorno, in the Tuscany region.

The much smaller Altair Chimica, situated at Saline di Volterra in the province of Pisa, is due to receive about €5 million (US$6.6 million) for a planned €13.5 million (US$17.8 million) investment.

The Commission concluded that the aid was not likely to cause undue distortion of competition within the Single Market and was therefore compatible with EC Treaty state aid rules.

Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of competition, explained, “These measures support the sustainability goal of the Lisbon strategy by avoiding future environmental costs, and are fully in line with the proposed Community strategy to reduce mercury pollution of January 2005.


Commissioner Neelie Kroes of The Netherlands is in charge of competition. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
"Environmental aid has an important role in encouraging companies to behave in a more environmentally friendly way," Kroes said.

The beneficiaries will set up new plants using the so-called membrane technology, not exceeding their current capacities, and clean up the old installations. As a result, these producers are expected to emit no mercury into the air or water from 2007.

The decommissioning of the old plants will eliminate the risk of mercury leaking from the old installations, which contain a total of 270 tons of mercury for both companies.

The new technology will also lead to other environmental benefits, such as substantial energy savings.

Chlorine and caustic soda are key building blocks that underpin 60 percent of the 380,000 million euro Western European chemical industry. These basic raw materials are made by passing electricity through brine.

About 60 percent of Western European plants use mercury as the negative electrode or cathode in this process. The mercury keeps the highly reactive products apart, which is essential for safe and efficient plant operation, explains Euro Chlor, Europe's chlor alkali industry association.


The cellroom of a mercury chlorine electrolysis plant. (Photo courtesy Euro Chlor)
In the mercury process, mercury emissions can come from the wastewater streams, gaseous process vents, air ventilation of the cell room, and the products - hydrogen and caustic soda.

Whenever possible, the mercury is recovered and recycled by a variety of techniques such as washing, settling and retorting. The remaining residual contaminated solid wastes are disposed of by environmentally secure routes such as encapsulation in concrete and deep mine storage.

As mercury is a toxic metal, the industry is converting chlorine plants to other technologies as they come to the end of their economic lives, Euro Chlor explains.

Substantial improvements have been made, with mercury emissions reduced by over 95 percent from 1997 to 1999. From 1997 to 1999, total mercury emissions by Euro Chlor members have been reduced 95 percent to nine metric tons in 1999. This is estimated to account for less than 10 percent of human generated mercury emissions in Western Europe.

This compares with estimated global total emissions of 20,000 tons per year from both natural and human generated sources, according to Euro Chlor figures.

The aid approval for the two Italian chlorine producers was made subject to a commitment by the Italian authorities to carefully monitor the de-commissioning of the old plants and to report to the European Commission regularly.

If the cleaning up is not performed in full compliance with the environmental rules, Italy might be requested to recover the aid from the producers, the Commission said.