MAC: Mines and Communities

Getting rid of mercury (but not yet)

Published by MAC on 2006-11-18

Getting rid of mercury (but not yet)

18th November 2006

Securing a total ban on the global trade in mercury has been an objective of many NGOs (and advocates of mining) for decades. Methyl mercury poisoning from use of the toxic heavy metal in gold amalgamation, has long been recognised as having appalling consequences for small scale miners in Amazonia, and these effects are now being felt elsewhere (especially in Africa). But this is by no means the whole story. According to Greenpeace, the European Union is the world's biggest trader in mercury and exports it to many developing countries, including India and Brazil

Although Spain finally closed down its mercury mines in 2002, it has still been selling off vast stock piles. And coal-fired power plants continue to belch out the deadly metal, since it's often contained in coal.

Twenty two US states are now introducing their own emissions standards which (not surprisingly) are higher than those set by the Bush regime. The country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also announced that it may sell surplus mercury stockpiles on the international market - a move condemned by some environmentalists, who claim that it's thereby bound to end up in "poorly regulated industries in developing countries, which release it into the atmosphere."

Last week the EU has voted to ban the use of mercury in thermometers - but not barometers, on grounds which, at first sight, seem puzzling, in not spurious.

22 States Write Mercury Controls Stricter than Feds'


17th November 2006

Twenty states have adopted or are pursuing their own plans to address mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants because they are dissatisfied with the federal Clean Air Mercury Rule, adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March 2005.

These state plans are calling for such provisions as stronger emission limits, shorter deadlines and limitations on trading in mercury emission - measures which address deficiencies that states have identified in the federal rule.

States are required to submit their mercury plans today to the EPA.

“State and local clean air agencies are deeply concerned about the serious public health and environmental dangers posed by power plant mercury emissions, and are determined to put in place programs that will provide an adequate measure of protection to the citizens they serve,” said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, NACAA.

“Many have concluded that the federal mercury rule is simply not up to the task of tackling this tremendous problem. Therefore, nearly half the states in the nation have moved to adopt programs that will yield greater mercury reductions on a faster schedule.”

In considering strengthening alternatives to CAMR, many states have relied upon a model rule that NACAA developed in November 2005 to guide them.

Becker says 22 states have adopted or are pursuing programs more stringent than the federal rule, 24 state programs are largely consistent with the federal model, and the remainder are uncertain or are not required to participate.

Among the more stringent state programs, 15 states call for greater reductions - most in the 80-90 percent range, as compared to 70 percent under the federal rule; 18 will require the reductions to be obtained years sooner; and 17 will prohibit or restrict trading of emissions, which is allowed by the federal rule.

States that have adopted or are pursuing more stringent programs are: Arizona, California Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

NACAA is the national association of air pollution control agencies in 54 states and territories and over 165 metropolitan areas across the country. Until recently the association was known as the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, STAPPA, and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, ALAPCO.

Energy Department May Sell Surplus Mercury Stockpile


17th November 2006

The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE, is considering selling some 1,300 tons of surplus mercury on the international market, prompting urgent warnings from health organizations that the toxic metal would find its way back into the domestic food chain from the developing world.

Word of the potential sale has prompted a formal request to the agency by Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, to keep the mercury in storage and out of the environment. “Given that mercury is a trans-boundary pollutant that is deposited both locally and globally,” he wrote to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, “any strategy to reduce mercury in the environment must also include reducing the volume of mercury traded and sold in the world market.”

The senator was joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, and the Mercury Policy Project in warning that U.S. mercury exports will “boomerang” back to the United States.

The DOE stockpile is nearly five times the amount exported in 2004 by all U.S. companies combined. Once used in weapons and energy technologies, the mercury is now obsolete for DOE functions and no longer of any use to the government.

Mercury exports often go to poorly regulated industries in developing countries, which release it into the atmosphere.

Some of that air pollution wafts over the ocean and back to the United States, contaminating ocean and freshwater fish.

“There is no question that mercury from this sale would find its way up the food chain, onto our plates, and into our bodies,” said Dr. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist and director of NRDC’s Environmental Health Program.

“Inviting less developed countries to a close out sale on surplus American poison is sheer lunacy given what we know about how easily mercury moves around the globe," she said.

Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child's development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities.

In adults, it can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure, and cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and other problems. Growing evidence suggests exposure to mercury may lead to heart disease.

Mercury poses a direct health risk to workers around the world, said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project.

“As many as 15 million gold miners in more than 40 countries, for example, are at risk from high concentration mercury vapors and mercury intoxication, which can lead to severe nervous system poisoning,” he said. “The U.S. government has a moral obligation to restrict its exports to developing countries, as the European Union recently proposed to do by 2011."

EU Lawmakers Put Mercury Thermometers out in Cold

PlanetArk FRANCE

15th November 2006

STRASBOURG - European Union lawmakers voted on Tuesday in favour of an EU-wide ban on mercury in thermometers in a bid to cut the risk posed by the toxic heavy metal to humans, the ecosystem and wildlife.

Thermometers account for up to 30 of the 33 tonnes of the mercury used in measuring and control devices across the EU every year. Direct exposure from a broken thermometer can cause damage to lungs, kidneys and brain when inhaled.

The European Parliament vote in Strasbourg was carried by 582 in favour, with 17 against and 21 abstentions. EU member states must now give their approval for the ban for it to take effect.

The move does not apply to devices that are already in use, or those which have already been placed on the market, the parliament said in a statement. Mercury-based barometers also got a reprieve, with the European Parliament concluding that a ban on their use would lead to more mercury found in household waste, as there will be no producers left to repair any broken instruments.

British Conservatives hailed the derogation for barometers as a victory for their campaign to save what they called in a statement an "ancient weather instrument" with a 400-year tradition.

But some ecologists were unhappy, with Swedish Green parliamentarian Carl Schlyter criticising the fact that the exemption also covered new barometers.

"It is a disgrace that a handful of small producers of new barometers should be able to hold public health to ransom," he said in a statement.


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