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
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
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