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Great Lakes Article:

World environmental officials weigh proposals to cut mercury emissions
By Marla Cone
Los Angeles Times
Posted on the Seattle Times February 24th, 2005

Environmental ministers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, this week to tackle one of the most widespread pollutants will be asked to choose between strict curbs on mercury proposed by the European Union and a voluntary approach advocated by the United States.

The EU is calling for deadlines, bans and detailed promises, while the United States prefers partnerships between industries and governments with no specific goals or deadlines for reducing either the global supply or demand for mercury.

In 2001, the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, declared that "national, regional and global actions, both immediate and long-term, should be initiated as soon as possible" to reduce emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that has contaminated fish and other foods around the world.

Meeting at UNEP's world headquarters through tomorrow, more than 100 environmental ministers from six continents will decide whether to begin drafting a binding international treaty to restrict the buying, selling and use of mercury.

From small gold mines in Ghana to chemical factories in Louisiana, mercury is traded freely as a commodity on the world market. Every year, about 3,400 tons are purchased for use in industrial processes, particularly chlorine manufacture, and in products such as batteries.

Mercury is a natural element in the Earth's crust. When industries release it into the air, however, it travels great distances, contaminating oceans, lakes and rivers. The amount of mercury found in one out of six Americans exceeds levels that could cause neurological and developmental damage in a fetus or infant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Unlike most other pollutants, mercury is used primarily in the developing world, not industrial countries.

Coal-burning power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States and in the world. But restrictions on the power industry will be left to individual nations under all the plans being considered. Mercury alloys used for dental fillings also would remain unaffected.

The four industries that buy and sell mercury are the focus of the U.N. debate: chlorine production; battery manufacturing, which occurs mostly in China; small-scale gold mining in Africa, Brazil and Southeast Asia; and mercury mines in Spain, Kyrgyzstan, Algeria and China.

"Mercury mismanaged anywhere in the world contaminates U.S. food supplies," said Linda Greer, director of environmental health for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "Mercury escaping from outdated chemical factories in India may easily appear in fish at a Manhattan grocery store or caught by anglers here in the U.S. Great Lakes."

In its proposal to the United Nations, the EU vowed to end all exports by 2011, shut down its only mercury mine and close old chloralkali plants that use vats of mercury to produce chlorine. It wants the rest of the world to commit to doing the same.

But the Bush administration opposes a binding treaty. Instead, it has called for creating partnerships among industries, governments and environmental groups to share information about mercury-free technologies, health advisories for contaminated fish and best management practices for businesses.

At least 10 nations have shown interest in the partnerships, and the United States this week plans to pledge more than $1 million next year to support the U.N.'s mercury program.

Facing a divisive debate, the secretariat of UNEP has pieced together a directive that merges the U.S. partnerships proposal with one from Switzerland that would start crafting a binding treaty.

Europe has proposed amendments that would close all mercury-using chlorine plants by 2020, restrict mercury batteries by 2010 and implement a strategy to reduce its use in gold mines by 2007.

UNEP officials say developing nations are likely to side with the administration out of fear that mercury supplies will be cut off. But they are eager to see whether the developed world especially Japan, Canada and Australia aligns with the United States or with Europe.

UNEP's governing council hopes to vote today or tomorrow. Europe and Asia have the most at stake economically. Europe is the world's largest exporter of mercury, while China and India are the largest users.

In the United States, the only industry with a sizable economic stake is the chlorine industry, which purchases about 130 tons of mercury per year.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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