Commission backs off new controls on mercury from power stations

The European Commission has deferred by five years a decision on whether to require controls on mercury emissions from coal-fired power stations. However, it has proposed a ban on exports of the toxic metal and a shift to long-term storage of waste mercury.1

Last year, the Commission consulted on plans to develop a strategy aimed at controlling the impacts caused by the production, use and disposal of the toxic heavy metal mercury. It raised the possibility of new controls on emissions of mercury from industrial sources (ENDS Report 350, p 56 ).

Although European emissions of mercury have fallen by some 60% over the last decade, global emissions grew by 20%. There is growing concern over the risk of human exposure to mercury through eating fish.

The strategy put forward by the Commission in February contains the following key elements:

  • Industrial emissions: According to the European Pollutant Emissions Register, sites regulated under the EU Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) released 27.4 tonnes of mercury to air in 2001. Coal-fired power stations are one of the main sources, along with the chemicals, metals and cement industries.

    In its consultation last year, the Commission raised the possibility of specific controls on mercury from power stations through IPPC and the large combustion plant Directive.

    However, the Commission now says it will "assess the effects of applying IPPC on mercury emissions, and consider if further action is required" under a review of the mercury strategy in 2010. The Commission's impact assessment predicts that the large combustion plants Directive will have a "significantly positive impact in reducing mercury emissions."

  • Crematoria: Neither is the Commission to proceed with suggestions that it might set emission limits on mercury emissions from crematoria, which are not at present regulated under EU legislation.

    The Commission will instead review progress under a 1990 OSPAR agreement signed by North Sea states in order to see "whether any further action is required."

    In the UK, an ageing population means that emissions from crematoria could increase significantly. However, the Environment Department (DEFRA) and crematoria operators recently agreed a 50% cut in mercury emissions (ENDS Report 360, p 41 ).

  • Reducing supplies of mercury: The EU is the world's largest supplier of mercury, producing about 1,000 tonnes per year. Supplies come from two main sources - ore from the state-owned Mayasa mine in Spain and recovered mercury from the chlor-alkali industry. In 2001, Mayasa agreed to buy waste mercury from the chlor-alkali industry to offset its own production.

    The most significant action in the strategy a proposed amendment to the 2003 EU Directive on the import and export of dangerous chemicals, phasing out the export of mercury by 2011. The Commission says that Spain has already temporarily halted production and does not expect to restart it.

  • Waste management: The most significant use of mercury is in the chemicals industry, where mercury cells are used to manufacture chlorine and caustic soda.

    Around half of the EU's chlor-alkali capacity is still based on mercury cells, rather than cleaner, more efficient membrane cells.

    Mercury cells are not considered to be an acceptable production method under European IPPC guidance, nor under the OSPAR agreement. Both require operators to phase out mercury cells by 2010, though the chlorine industry has lobbied hard to delay the phase-out to 2020 (ENDS Report 309, p 52 ).

    As mercury cells close or convert to membrane, some 12,000 tonnes of waste mercury will need to be dealt with. The Commission plans to negotiate an agreement with the chlor-alkali industry for the storage of waste mercury.

    Some Member States such as Sweden were keen on permanent disposal of mercury deep underground.

    However, the Commission estimates that this could cost €174-255 million, not including pretreatment costs.

    The Commission says this could affect the competitiveness of the industry, adding 6-8% to the €3.1 billion cost of converting the industry to membrane technology.

    In contrast, storage would cost an estimated €55-62 million and is "unlikely" to have a significant competitiveness impact, the Commission concludes. Trade association Euro Chlor argues that "permanent storage" in disused salt mines "can offer a cost-effective and environmentally safe solution", although this may require changes to national and EU legislation.

  • Restricting use of mercury: The strategy also proposes to restrict the use of mercury in measuring and monitoring equipment such as thermometers and blood pressure gauges.

    The Commission will also examine the use of mercury in dental amalgam and will consider whether additional regulation is necessary in this field.

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