Monday, February 23, 2009

State Department Clarifies U.S. Position On Mercury

Feb 20: The announcement that some 140 countries have unanimously decided to launch negotiations on an international mercury treaty to deal with worldwide emissions and discharges of the toxic pollutant was largely due to new leadership in the United States. The announcement was made by environment ministers at the end of the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to a release from UNEP, the landmark decision, sets the stage for the lifting of a major health threat from the lives of hundreds of millions of people [See WIMS 2/20/09]. The UNEP Governing Council will now develop a legally binding treaty to be enacted by 2013. The treaty will include actions to reduce global mercury pollution and human exposure to the chemical, by reducing intentional use of mercury in industrial processes and products and reducing emissions from coal plants and smelters. It will also address the problems posed by mercury waste sites.

It should be noted that the two major mercury traders, the European Union and the United States, had already agreed to ban future mercury exports before the treaty announcement. The E.U. plans to phase-out its mercury trade starting in 2011. The U.S. ban will be effective in 2013, according to legislation that President Obama sponsored as a U.S. senator.

On February 16, Daniel Reifsnyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs spoke to the Committee of the Whole at the 25th Governing Council UNEP meeting. Reifsnyder said, "I believe it is valuable to recall how the Governing Council has arrived at this point in the discussion. In 2001, the international environmental community began to focus on mercury when it launched the global mercury assessment to understand better the significance and sources of mercury as a global pollutant. The report from that assessment clearly set out the threat that mercury poses to human health and the environment, and the nature of mercury as a global pollutant. In 2003 and 2005, the Governing Council began substantively to address concerns over mercury, first by establishing a Mercury Program in UNEP, and second by launching a mercury partnership program. The United States has been a strong supporter of both of these developments and has contributed over $5 million to the Partnership. We are pleased with the significant work done by UNEP and the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership. . ."

In clarifying the U.S. position on mercury, Reifsnyder said, "We have now arrived at a point where there is a call to come together to launch an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international agreement on mercury; The United States now joins that call. We are prepared, Mr. Chairman, to help lead in developing a global legally binding instrument for mercury. We believe that: Now is the time for governments to launch an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC); The first negotiating session should begin this year with the goal of completing negotiations prior to the 2012 Governing Council (GC)/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF); The mandate of the INC should be devoted exclusively to mercury; It should be comprehensive, addressing all significant sources of mercury emissions, with particular attention to sectors that have the greatest global impact such as coal-fired power plants and other sources of unintentional air emissions; Financial resources for implementation should focus on priority issues of greatest global concern; and Governments should support the UNEP Mercury Program and Global Mercury Partnership to continue their work concurrent with the negotiations."

He went on to say, "The United States does not support adding additional substances to an agreement on mercury, or diverting valuable time and attention to other issues by debating criteria and parameters for an adding mechanism. We urge delegates to focus on those issues where we can find agreement. . . We should seek to ensure broad participation among governments in a mercury agreement by including flexibility such as transition periods and phased implementation. We should apply tailored approaches that address the sector-specific nature of mercury emissions and the technologies and methods used to reduce emissions. We need to be creative and flexible in our approaches, while at the same time ensuring that we make significant progress. The United States supports further action by UNEP in the near term to assess options for reducing emissions from coal combustion and other significant sectors, and comparing the relative costs of different options. . ."

Scientists and policy experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said, "This agreement was propelled by the United States’ reversal in policy, which also influenced policy reversals of other countries, including China and India. The announcement is a historic step forward in the fight against mercury pollution." Susan Egan Keane, policy analyst for NRDC said, “This is great news for reducing mercury pollution around the world, and shows a commitment from the Obama Administration to international environmental issues. The United States has taken a leadership role that will chart a new course on mercury protections around the world. We have set a strong example that is already influencing others to do the same. Today we have won a momentous human health victory that will reduce illness and save lives both here and abroad. This globally coordinated plan will substantially reduce mercury contamination in fish, prevent the contamination of our water, and shield our children from a dangerous chemical.”

On February 10, prior to the Governing Council meeting, twenty groups from around the world co-released a new Mercury Policy Project (MPP) report calling attention to the global human health hazards caused by mercury in fish and fish-eating marine mammals. The study, released by the international Zero Mercury Working Group, indicates that the health impacts of methylmercury in fish and fish-eating marine mammals are substantial, and demand an effective response from governments and the United Nations.

Access the complete statement of Deputy Assistant Reifsnyder (
click here). Access the UNEP draft decision on the management of chemicals including mercury (click here). Access the UNEP mercury program website for complete information and background (click here). Access decisions and information on the 25th session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Programme (click here). Access more information on the Tenth Session of the Global Civil Society Forum held prior to the 25th UNEP Governing Council meeting (click here). Access the release from NRDC (click here). Access more information including the study from the Mercury Policy Project (click here). Access the Zero Mercury Working Group website for more information (click here). Access EPA's International Mercury Activities website for more information (click here). Access additional information from the Worldwatch Institute (click here). [*Toxics]