U.S. Backs Out of Pollution Register Treaty Group

GENEVA, Switzerland, November 25, 2002 (ENS) - The United States today pulled out of a United Nations conference to finalize an international agreement that will provide the public with greater access to information about sources of pollution. The treaty will require participating countries to collect and publish information on the quantities of pollutants released from certain industrial sources.

The U.S. delegation announced at this morning's session that it would not formally join the negotiations of a working group to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, also known as the Aarhus Convention.

A source familiar with the U.S. position said the United States believes the proposals for pollution release and transfer registers do not go far enough.

pollution

Industrial pollution in England (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy Freefoto)
One of the primary U.S. concerns is that that several European countries favor a system that reports waste without specifying specific pollutants, rather than one that details individual pollutants.

The U.S. delegation withdrew because it does not see the model emerging from the meeting as a good global model, the source said.

The Aarhus Convention's working group on pollution release and transfer registers is meeting this week in Geneva to hammer out the final details of the public information protocol.

It will cover information on the disposal, storage, recycling and treatment of industrial pollutants. The information will be compiled into publicly available pollutant release and transfer registers.

According to its statement, the U.S. delegation believes that the text of the resolution does not adequately address several areas, including public access to chemical-specific information concerning transfers of wastes.

While the United States has neither signed nor ratified the Aarhus Convention, a U.S. delegation had participated in talks leading up to this week's meeting, which is the seventh meeting of the working group on pollutant release and transfer registers.

Environmentalists are upset with the U.S. withdrawal because it is one of a few nations that already has a well established system of pollution reporting. The U.S. Toxics Release Inventory was set up in 1986 and is a publicly available database from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It contains information on releases of some 650 chemicals and chemical categories from industries including manufacturing, metal and coal mining, electric utilities, hazardous waste and others.

"This is very disappointing news. The U.S. departure increases the likelihood that this new right-to-know law will be a weak instrument, and unfortunately strengthens the EU [European Union] countries' hand," said Friends of the Earth pollution researcher Mary Taylor, speaking on behalf of the coalition of nongovernmental organizations European ECO Forum.

"Issues now at risk include draft text concerning the public's right to know about on-site disposal and off-site destinations of hazardous wastes," Taylor said.

U.S. State Department officials declined to comment.

Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups sounded warnings ahead of this week's meeting as they believe several European countries are looking for ways to weaken the new protocol by excluding some chemicals and radioactive waste.

steelworks

Corus Steelworks, Teeside, England (Photo courtesy Freefoto)
The majority of issues must be finalized during this meeting, including the final list of chemicals and whether the disposal or storage of hazardous chemicals on-site should be included.

There is also debate over whether some chemicals linked to cancer should be excluded from the registers, and the exact list of industries and activities to be covered is yet to be determined.

Most Parties to the convention are opposed to including nuclear facilities under the treaty.

"The protocol should be a step forward for many countries, but the lack of ambition - particularly from the EU - is dismal," Taylor said.

"The public should have the right to know what chemicals are being discharged by companies and where they are being stored," she said. "Protecting certain sectors such as the nuclear industry from public scrutiny, or avoiding the inclusion of cancer causing chemicals, is scandalous."

In addition, environmentalists are specifically concerned that parties aim to exclude from the registers beryllium, chromium VI and styrene.

Beryllium is a lightweight metal commonly used in electronic appliances, golf clubs and non-sparking tools. It is found in coal, oil, certain rock minerals, volcanic dust, and soil. Beryllium is toxic and can cause lung cancer and skin disease.

Chromium is produced by burning coal and fossil fuels; it is used in stainless steel plating, chrome plating and leather tanning. Manufacturing or disposal of products or chemical containing chromium, releases chromium VI, a carcinogen, into the air, soil and water.

Styrene is a synthetic chemical used in rubber, plastics, insulation, fiberglass and auto parts. It is considered a possible carcinogen, and some studies of people who work closely with styrene have shown that breathing it may cause leukemia.

The Aarhus Convention was signed in 1998 by 35 countries from Europe and Central Asia and is named for the Danish city where the signing occurred. It is open to countries within the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) as well as to states having consultative status with the ECE. This includes the United States and Canada.

The convention requires signatories to provide environmental information to the public unless it would adversely impact international relations, security and national defense. It covers the energy sector, the mineral and chemical industries, waste management, industrial plants, dams, quarries, and the release of genetically modified organisms.

opening

At the ceremony marking the entry into force of the Aarhus Convention, children tug open the Doors to Democracy. (Photo courtesy UNECE)
By June 2001, 17 countries had ratified the convention, and it entered into effect on October 30, 2001. Five more have ratified the treaty since then.

The United Nations touts the Aarhus Convention as a new kind of environmental agreement, one that links environmental rights with human rights. It acknowledges that humanity owes an obligation to future generations and establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has hailed the Aarhus Convention as the "the most ambitious venture in the area of environmental democracy so far undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations."

"Although regional in scope, the significance of the Aarhus Convention is global," Annan said. "It is by far the most impressive elaboration of principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, which stresses the need for citizen's participation in environmental issues and for access to information on the environment held by public authorities."

Annan has described the Aarhus Convention as a giant step forward in the development of international law in the environmental field.

It is the first international, legally binding mechanism for access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters.

This meeting of the convention's working group on pollution release and transfer registers will continue through November 29. The final version of the protocol is expected to be formally voted on by the convention's parties at a May 2003 meeting in Kiev, Ukraine.

Find out more about the Aarhus Convention online at: http://www.unece.org/env/pp/