UN presses for mercury treaty
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January 22, 2013
UN presses for mercury treaty

Two developments mark January 2013 as a significant month in the global effort to control the effects of mercury pollution.  First, the U.S. Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 (MEBA) took effect January 1, 2013.  In addition to prohibiting the export of elemental mercury from the United States, the MEBA gives persons the option of delivering elemental mercury to storage facilities managed by the Department of Energy (DOE).  Second, during the third week of January, representatives of 147 nations convened in Geneva, Switzerland, in an attempt to conclude a 4-year effort to finalize a binding international treaty to reduce mercury releases to environment.

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The MEBA

Once elemental mercury is stored in DOE facilities, the MEBA prohibits its sale, distribution, or transfer to any other government entity.  The ban also applies to mercury mixtures or alloys (i.e., where mercury is not reacted with another element and retains its identity as mercury); however, the DOE will only accept for storage elemental mercury with a purity of 99.5 percent or greater, which will disqualify many mercury mixtures and alloys without purification. 

The export ban does not apply to mercury compounds (e.g., mercury chloride and mercury oxide); consumer and nonconsumer products, including discarded products; dental amalgam; scrap metal and used electronics; media (e.g., soils and sediment) and debris that are managed for implementing cleanup; industrial, commercial, and remediation residuals; and by-products of coal combustion.   However, the MEBA would not allow the export of any of these materials if the intent is to recover the elemental mercury for resale or reuse. 

Persons who deliver elemental mercury to the storage facility are indemnified against any liability related to the release or threatened release of mercury after delivery to the facility.  The MEBA authorizes the EPA to grant a 3-year essential-use exemption from the export ban for no more than 10 metric tons of mercury.  The Act does not apply to the import of mercury. 

Artisanal gold mining

At the international level, work on a global treaty is being conducted within the framework of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  The treaty would endeavor to address the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, an activity that has increased substantially since 2008 in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America with the sharp rise in international gold prices.  Annual emissions from small-scale gold mining are estimated at 727 tons, or 35 percent of the global total. 

UNEP recognizes the important economic value of artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which can contribute directly to poverty alleviation and regional well-being.  UNEP’s activities and part of the global treaty are focused on spreading the use of ultra-low-cost technologies that can reduce mercury emissions.  Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, has called attention to a retort the Blacksmith Institute has been testing in Indonesia, which cuts mercury emissions by up to 95 percent at a cost of $5. 

UNEP reports that the international discussions have produced near-agreements on artisanal gold mining and the storage and treatment of waste containing mercury and the management of contaminated sites.  Other areas contemplated in the treaty include the supply of and trade in mercury, the use of mercury in products and industrial processes, and the measures to be taken to reduce emissions from power plants and metals production facilities. 

In a report issued in anticipation of the Geneva meetings,  UNEP notes that the U.S. and Canada are leading the world in addressing mercury emissions from power plants.  U.S. EPA’s Mercury Air Toxic Standard (MATS) will lower power plant emissions of mercury by 20 tons, a 70 percent reduction.

Click here for information on the international mercury treaty.

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