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Treaty for Mercury Curbs Is Rejected

U.S. leads effort to block a binding accord sought by the EU. Instead, 140 countries agree to promote partnerships to limit use and emissions.

February 26, 2005|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

In a victory for the United States, world environmental leaders on Friday rejected the idea of a binding treaty to curb the use of mercury and instead decided to foster voluntary partnerships with industries to try to accomplish the same thing.

Meeting at the United Nations Environment Program's headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, environmental ministers from 140 countries agreed that they would promote -- but not require -- industry's use of mercury-reducing technologies and meet again in two years to take more action if emissions do not decline.

Mercury, which is used in gold mining, chlorine production, battery manufacturing and other industries, is traded on world commodities markets, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America. It is also emitted by coal-fired power plants, and when released into the air, it spreads globally, contaminating fish and other seafood.

The UNEP Governing Council's decision was unanimous, but it came after committee talks that stretched on for four days, with the European Union and the United States at odds.

The EU originally advocated deadlines to phase out mercury exports by 2011 and reduce use over the next decade, as well as initiating negotiations to craft a comprehensive and binding treaty restricting mercury's use.

The Bush administration opposed a treaty and any specific deadlines or goals. Instead, it called for voluntary partnerships between industries, governments and environmental groups to share information about mercury-free technologies and health advisories for contaminated fish.

The European proposal had little support among developing or developed nations. Ministers from China, India and nations in Africa and South America, which have the most at stake economically, said they did not have the funds or technical know-how to pledge to meet specific goals. But they were skeptical of the U.S.-proposed partnerships, and insisted on accountability.

The nations finally agreed that each partnership must set goals that will be announced publicly, and that some must be in place by September. They also agreed to consider a binding treaty again in 2007 if the partnerships fail to reduce mercury use. U.N. pacts to regulate pollutants take five to 10 years to develop.

"All of us will have our feet to the fire," said Claudia McMurray, deputy assistant secretary for the environment at the State Department, who served on the U.S. negotiating team. "If in two years we're not showing results, we'll have to do more. I'm really encouraged that we all came together at the end. Everyone is enthusiastic about this [partnership] approach."

But environmental activists said the U.N. resolution would provide little protection from mercury, a potent neurotoxin. The "international community is still not addressing the crisis in a meaningful and accountable manner," said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, a nonprofit group in India.

The partnerships will focus on several industries, including chlorine production, coal-fired power plants and small-scale gold and silver mining in South America and Africa.

The United States is not a major exporter or user of mercury. However, its coal-fired power plants emit mercury and nine U.S. chlor-alkali factories use large vats to trigger a chemical reaction that produces chlorine. Under the UNEP decision, nations agreed to consider banning mercury use at chlorine plants and using the best available technology to cut power plant emissions.

The Bush administration is facing a controversy over U.S. power plants because it plans to allow them to trade pollution credits rather than require use of the best-known equipment for controlling mercury emissions.

Environmentalists from seven countries were not allowed to speak at the UNEP talks because of an objection raised by the United States. As a result, the groups said they would probably boycott the partnerships.

"I don't consider the partnerships much of a step forward at all, but there are small steps forward, such as the U.N. conducting a global trade report on mercury," said Linda Greer, director of health programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

"With the U.S. refusing to listen to anything but their own idea, it was impossible to accomplish more," she said. "They were really bullies at the meeting. There was no give and take."

Because mercury can impair brain development, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women and women who may become pregnant to avoid eating large predatory fish such as swordfish and shark and to limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces per week.

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