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The European Commission welcomed this week a voluntary agreement to ensure the safe storage of surplus mercury from the European chlor-alkali industry, once a ban on exports of the highly toxic metal from the European Union takes effect. The legislation requires that mercury that is no longer used, be stored in a way preventing its release. Euro Chlor, the European association of the chlor-alkali industry - the chemical industry sector responsible for chlorine and caustic soda production - has agreed to ensure safe storage under optimal conditions, when the legislation comes into effect in 2011. This is the first voluntary industry agreement to be formally recognized by a Commission Recommendation since the adoption of a communication on environmental agreements in 2002.
Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. Mercury persists in the environment, where it can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury readily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children, is of greatest concern.
The export ban and the safe storage of surplus supplies of mercury are key parts of the EU's strategy for reducing the global supply of mercury and thereby limiting emissions of mercury into the environment. The EC launched the EU's mercury strategy - a comprehensive plan addressing mercury pollution both in the EU and globally - in January 2005. It contains 20 measures to reduce mercury emissions, cut supply and demand and protect against exposure, especially to methylmercury found in fish.
In September 2008, legislation was adopted banning all exports of mercury from the European Union with effect from March 2011. The new legislation also called for mercury that is no longer used in the chlor-alkali industry or that is produced in other major industrial operations, to be safely stored. Euro Chlor, the business association representing chlor-alkali producers in the EU and the European Free Trade Association regions, has pledged to ensure safe underground storage of mercury surpluses from the industry once this ban takes effect. Although the new legislation makes safe storage an obligation, Euro Chlor has agreed to go beyond the requirements of the legislation. Surplus mercury will be removed from decommissioned chlorine plants, transported to its final destination in approved sealed steel containers and preferably stored in deep underground salt mines. These mines provide safe final disposal of mercury as there is no humidity or possibility of corrosion. The EC is supposed to develop the specific technical criteria the locations will have to meet, as well as rigorous safety requirements to be observed at the sites.
Use of mercury is declining at both global and EU levels. Yet some significant uses remain. Globally, the main uses of mercury are in small-scale gold mining, the chlor-alkali industry and, mainly in China, the acetylene based process for the production of PVC. In the EU, only the chlor-alkali industry remains a significant industrial user, and it is progressively phasing out the use of mercury-containing cells for production of chlorine. At the moment, this mercury is being returned to the world market but this will end with the phasing out of exports from the EU under the new legislation.
The agreement complements existing community policies and legislation in the fields of industrial pollution control, chemicals (including the REACH proposal), protection of the health and safety of workers and waste. It is also consistent with policy objectives at the global level, namely the UNEP Mercury Program. It is, in particular, noteworthy that the application of directive concerning integrated pollution prevention and control (OJ L 257, 10.10.1996, p.26) leads to the progressive phase-out of mercury cell technology, no longer recognised as best available technique, in the chlor-alkali industry. The conversion to other production processes is supposed to liberate considerable amounts of metallic mercury. Dispersal of this mercury worldwide for diverse, partly illicit, uses would simply transfer an environmental problem that has already been solved within the community to beyond the EU borders. The proposed regulation therefore constitutes a necessary complement to the IPPC directive, avoiding globally negative side-effects of the phase-out.
Specific attention is given in the European regulations to compatibility of the export ban with WTO rules. Article XI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) prohibits restrictions on importation, exportation and the sale for export. Article XX GATT provides for derogation from general rules of the agreement to pursue a number of policy objectives.
Ari Syrquin is the head of the GSCB law firm's international department