U.S. Could Block International Action on Mercury

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - The United States plans to attempt to thwart future talks on mercury pollution at an international meeting next month, suggests an internal document leaked to a mercury watchdog group. The leaked paper provides talking points for U.S. negotiators who will argue against international limits on mercury releases or other mandatory measures aimed at reducing the risk of mercury exposure.

The document was leaked in advance of next week's meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. At the meeting, the council will review the recommendations of the UNEP Global Mercury Assessment Working Group, an assembly of about 150 experts which concluded last year that "there is sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts to warrant international action to reduce the risks to human health and the environment arising from the release of mercury into the environment."

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Mercury is a toxic metal that is liquid at room temperature. (Photo courtesy Zyra)
The political decisions made by the Governing Council will set the course for global action on mercury for years to come. But the United States is preparing to argue in favor of less action, less funding and less future discussion of the issue.

"We believe that negotiating a binding convention on mercury is not the most effective way to approach this issue at this time, and we should block any attempts to move forward on one at this meeting," advises the U.S. government deliberative document. The U.S. should "strive to prevent specific references to a convention," the document adds, as "Negotiating a convention would be expensive, time consuming, and extremely difficult."

The document, drafted by John Thompson, foreign affairs officer for the State Department's Office of Environmental Policy, proposes the creation of a Mercury Program within the UNEP Chemicals Division, "for the purpose of facilitating and conducting technical assistance and capacity building activities to support the efforts of countries to take action regarding mercury pollution."

However, the document opposes the idea of international targets for reducing mercury emissions, recommends against additional talks regarding mercury, and suggests that the UNEP mercury program be funded by "voluntary contributions" from nations. The U.S. delegation to the meeting "should oppose convening a formal expert or policy group meeting such as the September 2002 Mercury Working Group," the document states.

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Fires and fossil fuel burning can add mercury to the environment. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
The UNEP Working Group met in Geneva, Switzerland in September 2002 and finalized the global mercury assessment report for submittal to the Nairobi governing council meeting. The assessment calls for immediate actions to address the dangers of mercury, including "launching talks for a legally binding treaty," and "reducing risks by reducing or eliminating the production and consumption of mercury."

In the short term, the working group recommended establishing a non-binding global program of action, and strengthening cooperation among governments to share information about mercury risks. The working group called for more outreach to vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, additional technical and financial support for developing countries, and increased funding for research, monitoring and data collection on the health and environmental aspects of mercury and on environmentally friendly alternatives to mercury.

"These recommendations from the scientists and experts are the first essential step on the road to reducing and one day eliminating the environmental and health risks of mercury," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer after September's meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. "Now it is up to the politicians and policy makers to decide just where we go from here."

Mercury is a toxic chemical that can affect the nervous system, kidneys and liver, and cause developmental problems in both humans and wildlife. Because it circulates through water systems and the atmosphere and accumulates in body fat, every human being on earth has some trace amounts of mercury in his or her body.

incinerator

Incinerators like this one in Chicago, Illinois can release mercury from medical waste and other sources (Photo courtesy Lake Michigan Federation)
Over the past century, concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere and ocean increased three-fold. The Food and Drug Administration and 41 states warn consumers to limit or not eat certain fish due to mercury contamination, and 10 states advise pregnant women and children to limit consumption of canned tuna, the most widely consumed fish in the U.S.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates that one in 12 women of childbearing age have unsafe mercury levels in their bodies, translating into more than 300,000 children born each year in the U.S. at risk of exposure to mercury.

"There was real progress made at the September UNEP Work Group meeting in Geneva, with the U.S. agreeing that mercury was a serious global pollutant warranting international action," said Michael Bender, spokesperson for the nonprofit Ban Mercury Work Group (BMWG), which released the leaked document to the press.

"This latest position more reflects the domestic 'holding pattern' mercury policies of the Bush administration," he added. Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, will represent the BMWG, a coalition of 28 nonprofit groups from around the world, at the talks in Nairobi, scheduled to be held February 3-7.

Bender said he suspects that the Bush administration opposes more binding action on mercury because mandatory cuts in mercury emissions would heavily impact coal fired power plants, the largest human source of mercury.

"For the largest anthropogenic source of mercury, coal fired power plants, mercury emissions are just a small part of a much broader air pollution problem that many nations need to confront," the document states.

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Worker checks the main coal fired furnace at Niagara Mohawk's Dunkirk steam station in New York. Burning coal for power produces emissions laced with mercury. (Photo by David Parsons courtesy NREL)
While the UNEP mercury working group also "emphasized that it was not necessary to have full consensus or complete evidence in order to take action" on mercury, the U.S. position could have a major impact on the final recommendations of the Governing Council. The U.S. will go to the talks prepared to put pressure on nations and groups that disagree with the U.S. position, including the European Union.

In December, the European Union issued its formal position heading into February's talks, recommending "that the Member States support and actively work for concrete international actions to be initiated on mercury and its compounds, for instance a legally binding instrument … and that global assessment of other heavy metals such as lead and cadmium shall commence."

The leaked U.S. government document recommends that negotiators "oppose assessment of other heavy metals" that contaminate the environment, such as nickel and cadmium. The document calls on the U.S. delegation to put the European Union "on the defensive" by drawing attention to European nations that still mine mercury, including Algeria, Kyrgystan and Spain.

"Mercury is a toxic time bomb that must be defused by taking concrete steps, like those outlined in the EU position and in the declaration of the Latin American and Caribbean countries (GRULAC) in Geneva in September," said BMWG spokesperson Bender. "We applaud the GRULAC declaration - which was supported by Denmark, Norway and Sweden - stating that a binding international treaty on mercury should be created."

The U.S. will face opposition not only from other nations, but also on the home front.

Last month, the Environmental Council of the States, an organization made up of top state government environmental officials across the U.S., recommended that the federal government support developing, within six years, a binding international agreement on mercury "to implement a comprehensive global mercury action plan to reduce and where feasible eliminate mercury releases, uses and mining."

Any international agreement should also address "global mercury commodity trading, storage, and disposal," the council argued.

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Karen Studders, former commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. (Photo courtesy MPCA)
"It is clear to states seeking to reduce the risks of mercury pollution to humans and wildlife that this issue must be addressed internationally," wrote Karen Studders, former commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in a December letter to Jeff Lunstead, director of the Office of Environmental Policy at the State Department. Studders is co-chair of the Quicksilver Caucus/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mercury Stewardship Work Group.

While federal, state, local and corporate efforts to address mercury have produced improvments, Studders noted, "we can't significantly reduce mercury contamination of fish without reductions worldwide owing to the large contribution of international sources to mercury deposited in the states."

Recent research has shown that mercury is often deposited in rainwater and dust carried from sources hundreds or thousands of miles away. Two studies released in March 2002 show that mercury generated by fossil fuel burning power plants is falling from the sky in Antarctica and in the Arctic, and is entering the food chain.

The Ban Mercury Work Group is urging the United States to stick to earlier pledges to remain open to future treaty talks on global mercury issues.

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Swordfish contain some of the highest levels of methylmercury found in fish. (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
"The U.S. agreed in Geneva that mercury is a serious worldwide pollutant that warrants international action," Bender said. "But out of the other side of their mouth, they're saying they don't want to do anything about it."

"This is reflective of a lack of experience, and perhaps a lack of sincerity to really solve the problem," added Bender. "We recognize that [a binding treaty] is a significant investment of time and money, but what choice do we have if we're going to solve this problem?"

For more information on the upcoming UNEP Governing Council talks on mercury, visit: http://www.chem.unep.ch/mercury