U.S. Joins EU in Banning Mercury Exports

Ban intended to curb flow of mercury into global commerce, keeping it out of our tuna and other fish
October 15, 2008

U.S. Joins EU in Banning Mercury Exports

The U.S. just joined the European Union in setting a date certain to ban their mercury exports, thereby reducing the supply of commodity mercury into the world market.  Environmental groups in the U.S. and around the world applauded the broad bi-partisan support of the legislation, which was introduced by Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in the Senate, and in the House by Representative Tom Allen (D-ME).

"Neither mercury nor the fish we eat recognizes federal boundaries," Linda Greer, Director of the Health Program at The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said.  "Passage of this legislation banning the export of mercury is a great victory for the health of people in America and all over the world.  It will curb the flow of mercury into global commerce, keeping it out of our tuna and other fish."

In independent actions taken in late September, the EU adopted a mercury export ban that takes effect in 2011, while earlier this month Congress passed legislation to ban U.S. mercury exports by 2013.  U.S. President George Bush signed the legislation it into law yesterday.

The Mercury Market Minimization Act, S. 906, prohibits the sale of mercury by the U.S. government, bans exports of elemental mercury starting in 2010, prohibits the transfer of elemental mercury by Federal agencies and requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to designate and manage an elemental mercury long-term disposal facility.

The U.S. and the EU are among the top exporters of commodity mercury. Between 40 and 50% of the estimated 3,800 metric tons of annual global trade in mercury passes through the EU and the U.S.  Neither the U.S. nor the EU mines mercury anymore. Instead, most mercury supplies come from recycling of mercury products such as thermostats, as well as decommissioned mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants.  Excess mercury is sold on the world market by commodity brokers.

"Trading mercury is not like trading potato chips," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "We've got to stop this circle of poison, where over 1000 tons of mercury are used annually by 15 million gold miners in 50 developing countries, exposing themselves, the global environment and the world's fish supply to this dangerous neurotoxin.  With export bans passed in the EU and now the U.S., momentum is building for a global mercury trade ban."

Gold-mining sites are extensively contaminated with mercury around the globe. Airborne mercury is also a transcontinental pollutant that ends in waterways, contaminating fish that end up on dinner tables the world over.

Lawmakers came up with the plan to have DOE accept the liquid metal for storage after they consulted with the industry organizations, including the American Chemistry Council, National Mining Association and The Chlorine Institute; environmental groups; and ECOS, a coalition of states' top environmental regulators.