The Vinyl Industry Strikes Back

James Vallette | April 29, 2016 | Policies

The Vinyl Institute, a trade association of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturers, this month launched a blog site, called Vinyl Verified, which embodies the spirit of this year’s presidential campaign. The industry website launched with a suite of posts that try to discredit transparency and disclosure tools, many that the modern green building movement hold dear. “Vinyl Verified” revels in polemics. It shouts to cloud reality.  It claims a mission of “confrontation” against those who generate “misinformation” about the PVC industry.  The industry rag expends considerable energy raging against the Healthy Building Network, and yours truly.

Informed building owners, architects, housing providers, retailers, and manufacturers are turning away from toxic products wherever they can. Combined, they have forced some serious changes upstream in the chemical sector. Anyone who seeks to educate the market about potential hazards in building materials can become a strategic target of the companies whose toxic chemicals are losing share. Companies like BASF, ExxonMobil, and Formosa Plastics, through the industry associations that they control -- the American Chemistry Council and the Vinyl Institute – have ramped up their backlash on multiple fronts, most recently in this new website.

Yesterday, via Twitter, the Vinyl Institute alerted me to the latest blog posting on Vinyl Verified. In its blog the trade association trashes my article from a few weeks back, Still Crazy After All These Years, in which I revealed that four chlorine plants in North America are still using ancient technology that uses mercury cells. The Vinyl Institute blogger chose to be anonymous in an article that otherwise isn’t shy about calling names.  

Between the lines, read carefully: the trade association’s writer does not dispute the main point of my article, that four plants are still using mercury cells to produce chlorine in North America, and that it is long past time for that to stop.

The Vinyl Institute article attempt to categorically deny that the PVC industry has anything to do with chlorine made from mercury cell plants in the United States. It says, without qualification,

“The two facilities quoted by Mr. Vallette supply water treatment, agricultural, and pharmaceutical applications… neither the ASHTA plant in Ashtabula, Ohio plant nor the Axiall plant in Proctor, West Virginia supply the PVC industry in any manner.”

The largest remaining mercury cell plant in North America, Axiall’s Natrium plant in New Martinsville (Proctor), West Virginia, is at the center of this dispute.  As I noted in the original article, Axiall’s public relations officer told me that the company has no plans to stop using mercury cells.  Axiall is the country’s second largest producer of vinyl chloride monomer. Its PVC building products division is one of the country’s largest.

Information from the U.S. government, and Axiall itself, contradicts the Vinyl Institute’s central claim.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Axiall plant in West Virginia operates a fleet of 59 double-hulled tanker barges that carry chlorine and caustic soda from the Ohio River to the Calcasieu River and points in between.[1] By barge, it can take 33 days for chlorine produced at the Natrium plant in West Virginia to reach the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Axiall operates a vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plant. [2] Axiall’s VCM plant, in turn, feeds the production of PVC. 

This is in Axiall’s own words:

“Transportation of chlorine by barge plays a role in balancing operations in Axiall’s chlor-alkali network,” says Mark Sinclair, manager of customer service and logistics at the Natrium facility. “Chlorine is transferred internally from Natrium to the Lake Charles facilities when additional material is needed…. (V)inyl-chloride monomer produced at Axiall’s Lake Charles North and South plants is sent to the Aberdeen, Miss., facility for PVC production.”[2]

Axiall also sells chlorine from its Natrium plant on the open market. “Axiall pioneered barge shipments of chlorine and currently has barges of 1100-ton capacity. Shipping points are Lake Charles and Natrium,” according to one recent company document.[3] An Axiall “product stewardship summary” describes the company as “a global merchant producer of chlorine, manufacturing and shipping from a grid of six strategically located plants” including the one in W.Va.  It notes, “the single largest end use for chlorine is the manufacture of PVC precursors.”[4] (In 2013, vinyl accounted for over 40% of chlorine demand in North America, according to the industry.)[5]

Merchant chlorine plants also supply manufacturers of chlorinated additives that are used in PVC products. Chlorine from the Natrium plant, for example, has supplied Dover Chemicals, of Dover, Ohio, the leading U.S manufacturer of chlorinated paraffins for use in flexible PVC.[6] According to Dover Chemicals, the PVC industry consumes over 70% of all chlorinated paraffins.[7] The Vinyl Institute, in a recent submission to the US EPA, defended the continued use of medium- and long-chain chlorinated paraffins (MCCPs and LCCPs) in PVC.[8]   MCPPs are persistent and bioaccumulative reproductive toxicants.[9]  The US Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating both MCCPs and LCCPs for further action. EPA says these chemicals “present similar concerns” as short-chain chlorinated paraffins, which are globally recognized persistent, bioaccumulative, toxicants, “although data on them is far more limited than for short-chain chlorinated paraffins.”[10]

The other US plant that still uses mercury cells, the Ashta Chemicals facility in Ashtabula, Ohio, sells all of its chlorine right next door to one of the world’s largest producers of titanium dioxide, Cristal (owned by the Saudi group, Tasnee), which in turn sells it to paint, paper, and plastics – particularly PVC resin – manufacturers.[11]  PVC window manufacturers load their resins with titanium dioxide to ward off UV degradation.[12]

The Vinyl Institute’s article ignores these connections. It chooses instead to discredit me with unfounded claims. The trade association charges me with having an “agenda,” as if the Vinyl Institute does not have its own. Indeed, its entire website positions the Vinyl Institute as an independent arbiter of its own industry, much like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell positions himself to judge any appeals of decisions he has made.  (At least Goodell puts his name to his opinions, unlike the authors of the Vinyl Verified articles).

The Vinyl Institute selectively focuses its argument, faulty as it is, on production in the United States, even though its stated mission is to “make vinyl the global plastic of choice.”[13]  Vinyl products pour into the United States from other countries, where many PVC manufacturers still depend upon chlorine produced by mercury cell technology in other countries.  Close to home, in Mexico, Cydsa S.A. operates two mercury cell plants; it says vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) customers are a “major market” for its chlorine.[14]  According to the United Nations, as of the end of 2014, 44 facilities worldwide still use mercury cell technology. Most of these (29) were in Europe.[15] Even the largest chemical company in the world, BASF, continues to use mercury cell technology at its VCM plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

Some of the chlorine used to make PVC worldwide comes from plants that Vinyl Institute members sold off when they converted to membrane technology.  For instance, Shin-Etsu, the Japan-based parent company of Vinyl Institute member Shintech, sold its mercury cell technology to a chlor-alkali producer in Hungary that continues to operate.[16] Shintech is one of only four “full members” of the Vinyl Institute (the others are Formosa Plastics, Occidental Chemicals, and Westlake Chemicals; other major PVC producers, including Axiall and Dow, are not on their membership list).

Formosa is the largest full member of the Vinyl Institute.  In November 1998, Formosa shipped thousands of tons of mercury-laden waste from its Taiwan chlor-alkali operations to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. According to local reports, people opened the bags of waste sitting in the village and used the bags to store rice. “Thinking the contents construction waste, some took them home and used them as filling material,” said an Inter-Press Service story. [17]  The Associated Press reported, “Formosa Plastics admitted in embarrassment that it generated the waste a decade earlier and sent it abroad because residents living near the plants objected to its disposal near their neighborhoods.”[18] Formosa then moved the waste out of Cambodia and tried to ship it to Europe, California, Idaho and Nevada.

This story echoes the tragedy of Cato Ridge, South Africa. In 1989 and 1990, I tracked mercury waste from U.S. chemical manufacturers to this house of horrors on the edge of the then-apartheid regime’s absurd “homeland” of KwaZulu-Natal.  Thor Chemical, the facility’s owner, claimed it was recycling” mercury waste from around the world. Instead, it burned some of it, stored and dumped a lot of it, and in the process poisoned its workers and the surrounding environment with some of the worst mercury contamination documented in the world.  Mercury poisoning felled  workers into comas. In its Vinyl Verified post blasting my article, the Vinyl Institute denies any connection between the PVC industry and Thor Chemicals.  “Vallette again misinforms his readers that the environmental burden from this facility that reclaimed mercury from electrical equipment now is attributed to the PVC industry,” the author claims.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Borden Chemicals sent mercury wastes from its PVC plant in Geismar, Louisiana to Thor. “Borden shipped over 300,000 pounds of hazardous waste to a Thor Chemicals facility located in South Africa without notifying EPA as required by RCRA,” asserted the DOJ.  “The Borden shipments went to the Thor Chemicals facility purportedly for recycling, but little or none of the waste was actually recycled.  Borden has already publicly acknowledged that approximately 2,500 barrels containing mercury and vinyl chloride wastes were found at the Thor facility with Borden labels.”[19]  (Borden closed its Louisiana plant in 2002; Vinyl Institute member Westlake Chemical took over the plant, replaced the mercury cells with membrane technology, and restarted production in 2004.)

The Vinyl Institute, as a matter of course, attempts to distance the entire PVC industry from its global trail of mercury pollution.[20]  Its denial runs deep.

Even when mercury cells are phased out, it can take a toll on the communities around hazardous waste landfills that receive the dismantled equipment, contaminated building materials and soil, as well as on the workers doing the dismantling.  In the course of dismantling a mercury cell plant owned by Vinyl Institute member Occidental Chemical in Alabama, seventeen workers allegedly were sickened by mercury poisoning, and one died, according to a local news station.[21]

The vinyl industry is not coming clean with the public. Rather than acknowledge that the world’s largest chemical companies continue the production of chlorine from mercury cell-based technologies, and sell PVC product from this production around the world, rather than express any remorse for the mercury poisoning of communities from the fenceline to the biosphere with one of industry’s most potent neurotoxicants, the vinyl trade association has chosen to use ad hominum attacks in an attempt to absolve itself from any responsibility.

[1] Institute for Water Resources, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Waterborne Transportation Lines of the United States, Calendar Year 2013, Volume 2 - Vessel Company Summary,” 2013. 

[2] Axiall Corporation. “Keeping Axiall Products on the Rails; Keeping Axiall Products Flowing,” Summer 2015. 

[3] Axiall Corporation. “Product Stewardship Summary: Chlorine,” October 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Olin. “UBS SMID Cap One-on-One Symposium,” February 11, 2014.

[6] Dover Chemical. “Improved Chlorinated Paraffin Secondary Plasticizer Compositions.” Accessed April 29, 2016.  And, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and US Department of Transportation. “Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, Incident Reports Database Search.” Database. (Incident number I-1984030370) Accessed April 28, 2016.

[7] Dover Chemical Corporation. “Chlorinated Paraffins: Regulatory Issues,” September 28, 2015.

[8] Krock, Rich, and The Vinyl Institute. “Re: Docket No. EPA-HQ-OPPT-2015-0789 Chlorinated Paraffins; Request for Available Information on PMN Risk Assessments,” March 21, 2016.

[9]  Pharos Project. “[85535-85-9] MEDIUM-CHAIN CHLORINATED PARAFFINS (MCCP) - ALKANES, C14-17, CHLORO.” Database. Accessed April 29, 2016.

[10] US Environmental Protection Agency. “Short-Chain Chlorinated Paraffins,” October 9, 2015.

[11] Cristal. “Plastics: Market Applicatoins,” 2014.

[12] AZO Materials. “Vinyl Fencing, Decking and Railing,” June 11, 2013.

[13] Vinyl Institute Inc. “Form 990, 2014.” Accessed April 29, 2016.

[14] Cydsa S.A. “2014 Cydsa Annual Report,” 2015.

[15] United Nations Environmental Programme. “WCC - Chlor-Alkali Industry  Total Mercury Emissions (air + Water + Products)  for USA/Canada, Europe, India and Brazil/Argentina  (plus 1 Uruguayan and 3 Russian Plants from 2005 Onwards) (Spreadsheet),” 2014.

[16] “BorsodChem,” 2009.

[17] Inter Press Service. “Taiwan Used Bribes, Corruption to Dump Mercury Waste in Cambodia.” Albion Monitor, February 22, 1999.

[18] Huang, Annie. “Scandal Puts Taiwan in Uncomfortable Spotlight as Toxic Waste Exporter.” Associated Press, January 5, 1999.


[20] see, for example, U.S. Life Cycle Inventory. “Details for Chlor-Alkali Electrolysis, Chlorine for PVC, at Plant.” National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Accessed April 29, 2016.

[21] Waxel, Marie. “Shoals Woman Files Wrongful Death Suit against Chemical Plant.” WAFF, December 20, 2011.