WisBusiness: ERCO hasn’t given up on conversion of Port Edwards plant

By Brian E. Clark

ERCO Worldwide is continuing to mull over plans to convert its Port Edwards chemical plant to a mercury free system. The facility has 100 full-time employees and an annual payroll of $7 million.

“The conversion is still on the table,” said Norm Christiansen, general manager of the company’s chlor-alkali division. “The bulls-eye on my radar is sometime later this summer. The big question remains how we will pay for it.”

ERCO’s Port Edwards’ plant makes chemicals primarily for the paper industry. It is the Wisconsin’s largest airborne emitter of mercury, which is classified as a poison by state and federal agencies.

Because mercury is an element, it doesn’t break down and its toxins flow into lakes and streams. Pregnant women and children are discouraged from eating the tainted fish.

In January, the state Public Service Commission turned down a bid by ERCO that would have given it a significant break on its electricity rates and guaranteed cost increase limits for the next decade. ERCO said it would have used the savings to pay for the $85 million conversion.

The vote was 3-0. Commissioners ruled that existing law prohibited them from approving special rates for specific customers.

Christiansen said his company spends $1 million a month at the Port Edwards plant for electricity from Wisconsin Power & Light — an Alliant subsidiary. He said the cost for power at the facility has increased “dramatically” in the past decade.

“We continue to evaluate the viability of the conversion in an environment that does not have certainty around power,” he said. “And that, obviously, is a critical part of our costs.”

Christiansen said the conversion would also save the company money because the new system would use 30 percent less power.

“It’s far more efficient from an electricity standpoint,” he said. “But it all comes down to risk benefit.

“The state has come forward with some ideas. And we are still pressing forward internally to see if project can be justified,” he said.

Allen Shea, a DNR division administrator for air and waste, said he was not aware of any new state incentives that might help convince the ERCO board to convert the Port Edwards plant.

But that doesn’t mean something might not be forthcoming, he said.

“And we are still very interested from a public health standpoint of seeing the conversion happen,” he said.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he, too, continues to favor the conversion.

“The Port Edwards facility is very well run and the ERCO people have been good to work with,” Meyer said. “The problem is the plant’s system, which currently emits 25 percent of the state’s airborne mercury contamination.”

Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, said he remains disappointed with the PSC’s January decision.

“We continue to hope that there will be a positive outcome so that ERCO can make the conversion project work,” he said.

“We also think some kind of guarantee for long-term rates is sound because it’s good for jobs and the Wisconsin economy,” he said. “We will keep pressing for it.”