Commission grapples with mercury strategy

Key questions on the management of waste mercury from the phase-out of mercury cells in the chlor-alkali industry have been flagged up in a consultation by the European Commission.1 The Commission is also seeking views on the case for controls on emissions from power stations and crematoria, and new restrictions on the use of mercury in products.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that is also highly mobile in the environment. In 2002, Environment Ministers asked the Commission to draw up a strategy to deal with the complex issues surrounding management of the metal. The current consultation aims to inform the strategy, which will be issued by the autumn.

Europe's releases of mercury have fallen significantly over the past decade, with emissions to air falling by about 60% during the 1990s. Environmental exposures have fallen, although levels in fish - the main exposure route - remain high.

However, the Commission makes clear that the EU plays a key role in the broader problems surrounding mercury use. Global emissions are rising - and the metal is linked with acute environmental problems in developing countries through its uncontrolled use in small-scale "artisanal" gold mining and consumer products.

The EU is the world's leading supplier of raw mercury, with an annual net export of around 1,000 tonnes. Supplies comes from two main sources - a mine in Spain owned by Mayasa and recovered mercury from the decommissioning of chlor-alkali plants.

In practice, the two sources are closely linked. Under a deal struck in 1999, Mayasa buys surplus mercury from the EU chlorine industry and uses it to displace its own production. Arisings from the chlor-alkali industry have varied between 180 tonnes and 500 tonnes over the last three years, and Mayasa's mined output has varied accordingly.

Until now, the EU's general policy has been to encourage recycling of mercury. However, the Commission warns that "a continued oversupply and low price are significant drivers for ongoing and potentially new uses" of the metal.

The consultation asks whether the EU should prohibit or restrict mercury exports with the aim of raising global prices. Another "conceptually attractive" but "probably unrealistic" option would be to pursue a policy of European self-sufficiency. Finally, the EU could propose adding mercury to the "prior informed consent procedure" under the Rotterdam Convention on transfrontier shipments of hazardous chemicals.

This decision is intertwined with other decisions on the phase-out of mercury cells in the chlor-alkali industry (ENDS Report 332, pp 43-44 ). An estimated 12,000 tonnes of mercury is still in use. Remarkably, the Commission's consultation is silent on the key issue of when this material will come to the market - although a background report by consultants Concorde sheds more light on the matter.

Under a "strict" interpretation of the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) Directive, mercury cells - which are not the "best available technique" for chlorine production - should be phased out by 2007. This would flood the market with waste mercury. A more flexible interpretation - and one that is consistent with an agreement signed by North Sea states in 1990 - would require phase-out by 2010.

However, chlorine manufacturers' trade body EuroChlor is arguing for a phase-out by 2020 - essentially based on business as usual projections of mercury cells' economic life. This would lead to a spike in waste mercury production in the second half of the next decade.

The Commission seeks views on two options to prevent mercury from the chlor-alkali industry from flooding the global market. The first, being promoted strongly by Sweden, would be to require permanent disposal, probably in deep bedrock. An alternative approach, used in the US for mercury from ex-defence stocks, would be temporary storage in liquid form.

A related question concerns the "reservoir" of mercury contained in products which are still in use. The Commission cites estimates that 2-5,000 tonnes of mercury are contained in goods and products in Western Europe, with a further 4-8,000 tonnes in Central and Eastern Europe. It suggests that this material could be collected and recycled - and "if use of mercury in products is still seen as legitimate, it would appear better to encourage recycling."

Other key issues raised by the consultation include:

  • Mercury in products: The EU has already introduced a range of controls on the use of mercury in batteries, lighting and electrical control and switching. The Commission is also due to propose controls on mercury use in medical electrical and electronic devices by next February.

    However, no controls apply to significant mercury uses such as thermometers, blood pressure gauges and pressure switches. The Commission seeks views on whether it should limit the marketing of such equipment - and asks whether it would be appropriate "over the long term" to aim for a complete phase-out of mercury in products.

  • Power stations: Coal combustion accounted for about half of Europe's mercury emissions to air in 2000, and half of this came from combustion plants with a thermal input greater than 50MW.

    The Commission suggests that mercury control from power stations could be left to the implementation of IPPC and the large combustion plants Directive - although any reduction in emissions would be an indirect result of abating particulates and sulphur dioxide.

    Alternatively, specific controls on mercury - either by abatement or controls on fuel quality - could be added to the large combustion plants Directive. This requires the Commission to report on the scope for abatement of heavy metal releases by the end of 2004.

    Finally, the consultation floats an incentive-based system such as a mercury emissions charge or a cap and trade system similar to that being developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, it warns that a trading system for a toxic pollutant may not fit well with the site-specific requirements of IPPC.

    The Commission tentatively suggests that the above measures could also be applied to combustion plants below 50MW, which currently fall below the scope of IPPC and the large combustion plants Directive.

  • Crematoria: At present there are no EU measures controlling emissions from crematoria. Across Europe an estimated 1,300-2,200 tonnes of mercury is contained in fillings - "highlighting the possibility of significant emissions for many years to come in the absence of abatement."

    The Commission seeks views on whether it should apply emission limits and BAT standards to crematoria. Some countries have already required such steps. The UK recently proposed a gradual phase-in of controls (ENDS Report 347, p 37 ).