Skip Page Banner  
Skip Navigation

Negotiators Seek to Finalize Mercury Treaty As Groups Warn About Cost of Inaction

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

GENEVA--Negotiators from more than 130 countries are hoping to finalize by Jan. 18 the first international legal instrument on reducing the use of mercury and limiting emissions into the environment, but officials said difficult issues must be resolved before a deal can be reached.  

The meeting in Geneva comes amid new warnings from environmental groups about the cost of inaction, with two reports issued Jan. 9 citing “ubiquitous” mercury contamination in marine and freshwater systems as well as the emergence of global “hot spots” where elevated levels of mercury pose serious threats to both ecosystems and human health.

The negotiations on the mercury treaty were launched in 2009, with the fifth International Negotiating Committee meeting (INC5) that began Jan. 13 in Geneva set to be the final round of talks. A diplomatic conference has already been scheduled for October in Japan to open the text for signature.

Senior officials involved in the talks said differences to be resolved include the selection of products and processes in which the current use of mercury will be phased out and the deadline for achieving this, whether primary mercury mining should be banned completely, and what compliance and financial assistance provisions should be included in the treaty.

In a note to delegations circulated Jan. 3, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said he has been “encouraged by the determination and commitment that governments have demonstrated to the future convention.”

“I continue to be confident that, even though there still are difficult areas to be negotiated, governments will be able to arrive at a successful outcome by the end of INC5,” Steiner said.

Developing Countries Demand Assistance

Negotiators are working from a new draft treaty text prepared under the authority of Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan chairman of the INC5 meeting.

The treaty as currently drafted would regulate the supply and trade of mercury and the use of mercury in products and industrial processes. It would outline steps to be taken to reduce emissions from power plants and metals production facilities, ensure the safe storage and treatment of waste containing mercury, and develop strategies for identifying and assessing contaminated sites.

Speaking to reporters on the opening day of the meeting, Lugris said the negotiations were expected to be intense, with diplomats meeting until midnight each day in order to finalize a deal by the end of Jan. 18.

“We still have many challenges in front of us,” he said.

The chairman in particular cited developing countries' demands for financial and technical assistance. “There’s no doubt that we have to find a balance between control and means of implementation,” he said. “Developing countries have been very vocal expressing the need to have a financial mechanism and a mechanism to assist them in technology transfer and capacity building.”

On the control side, Lugris said issues that remain “more open to discussion” include those related to supply and trade, products and processes, and air emissions control and releases.

Products, Processes for Phaseout

On products and processes, “we have a clear understanding on what the regime is going to look like, but we need to finalize the annexes” listing the categories of mercury-added products and manufacturing processes in which the use of the metal will be phased out, he noted. “The issue of the list of products is very much open and will be central in our discussions.

“We have to agree on a list of products here in Geneva, but we also have to be clear that, if we cannot reach an agreement on some products, we need to leave doors open for the convention to have a dynamic aspect allowing us to move over time and have a very comprehensive regime,” the chairman added.

Lugris noted that a joint proposal from the European Union, Japan, and Jamaica on a product and processes coverage list was expected to be the basis for negotiations throughout the week.

That joint paper calls for the phaseout of mercury in products such as batteries, switches and relays, fluorescent lamps, pesticides, measuring devices, and soaps and cosmetics by 2018 (or 2020 for batteries and measuring devices), and in processes such as chlor-alkali, polyurethane, and acetaldehyde production by dates ranging from 2018 to 2025.

Text Deals With Primary, Artisanal Mining

On primary mining, the draft text would require countries with primary mercury mining in their territory to ban the sale and export of mercury from these sources.

The text, however, would exempt mercury for use in the production of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), which is used to make PVC plastic, instead requiring producer countries to promote measures reducing its use. Environmental groups complain that this exemption would allow Chinese plants to continue with a highly polluting coal-based process for VCM production in which mercury is used to spark the chemical reaction. According to 2009 industry figures, the coal-based process was used at 94 of China's 104 VCM production plants.

One issue where compromise appears already to have been reached is on the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which has boomed with the rise in the price of gold. A UNEP report issued Jan. 10 noted that ASGM has surpassed coal burning as the world’s major source of mercury emissions and is “by far the major contributor” to mercury emissions in South America and sub-Saharan Africa (see related story).

The draft treaty text, which Lugris said reflected major progress made on the issue at the most recent INC meeting in mid-2012, would allow mercury to be imported for continued use in ASGM but subject to countries with ASGM drawing up national action plans for reducing mercury emissions and releases (35 INER 707, 7/18/12).

Perrez admitted that it was not realistic to seek a global agreement to end the use of mercury in ASGM at this time.

The Swiss experience in providing development assistance to countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela on the issue shows that the problem of ASGM use of mercury “cannot be solved through a ban,” he declared. ASGM “involves communities that are already marginalized and work quite often in the gray zone of legality. … Just banning it would not solve the problem.”

Mercury 'Ubiquitous' in Water Supplies

In a joint study issued Jan. 9, the U.S.-based Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) noted that concentrations of mercury in the global environment have increased approximately threefold as a result of human activities, though no time frame was specified. While industrial emissions have declined in North America and Europe during the past two decades, emissions have more than doubled in East Asia and India over a similar time period.

The groups said their study, based on measurements taken in 17 countries around the world, found that mercury contamination “is ubiquitous in marine and freshwater systems around the world.”

“Fish samples from around the world regularly demonstrate mercury concentrations exceeding human health advisory guidelines based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference dose,” the two groups warned. “Our findings demonstrate that 84 percent of the fish sampled were not safe for consumption for more than one meal per month.”

The two groups also said that mercury “hot spots” with high concentrations of the metal have become globally common, and that hair samples taken from around the world “regularly demonstrate mercury concentrations exceeding human health advisory guidelines based on the U.S. EPA reference dose level [of 1 part per million], which translates to 82 percent above the guidelines.”

Advocacy Groups Criticize Draft Text

The groups noted the current draft version of the mercury treaty does not require the identification and cleanup of contaminated sites, provides no definition of hazardous mercury waste, and offers only "vague options" for controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, cement kilns, and waste incinerators that exceed a certain output threshold.

“The results demonstrate the need for a mercury treaty that mandates true reductions of mercury emissions--not just to air but to land and water as well,” said Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser with IPEN. “Mercury is a large and serious global threat to human health that requires a robust and ambitious global response.”

In a joint letter to EU environment ministers sent Dec. 20, three nongovernmental organizations--the European Environment Bureau, the Health and Environment Alliance, and the Zero Mercury Working Group--said the Geneva meeting represents a “last chance” to develop a strong treaty to reduce mercury exposure.

The groups highlighted what they said was new scientific evidence in a separate report issued by BRI in early December projecting a 50 percent increase in mercury levels by 2050 in the Pacific Ocean if current pollution trends continue unabated.

The technical capacity exists to manage mercury pollution, and mercury-free alternatives exist for nearly all products containing the metal, they argued. “What is missing is the political will to make the necessary commitments to phase out mercury use, and put the needed controls and alternatives in place.”

Fishing Industry Questions Research

The statements prompted a response from a U.S.-based fishing industry group warning of “emotional rhetoric” and “questionable research” on the issue.

Commercially caught seafood “has always contained minimal traces of mercury regardless of pollution levels,” the National Fisheries Institute declared Jan. 11. “In fact, levels of mercury in commercial seafood are just as they were nearly 100 years ago.”

While mercury emissions do pollute lakes, streams, and rivers, the “vast majority of the seafood we eat comes from the ocean or fish farms and is … largely unaffected by emissions,” the organization added.

By Daniel Pruzin  


More information on the mercury negotiations is available at http://bit.ly/WOUVoJ.

The report Global Mercury Hotspots is available at http://tinyurl.com/bxxrbu4.

The report Mercury in the Global Environment: Patterns of Global Seafood Mercury Concentrations and their Relationship with Human Health is available at http://tinyurl.com/axkrvbg.

 

To view additional stories from International Environment Reporter™ register for a free trial now