Nations to Write Treaty Cutting Mercury Emissions

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

More than 140 countries have agreed to negotiate a legally binding treaty aimed at slashing the use of the metal mercury, with the goal of reducing people's exposure to a toxin that hampers brain development among infants and young children worldwide.

The agreement, announced at a high-level United Nations meeting of environmental ministers in Nairobi yesterday came after Obama administration officials reversed U.S. policy and embraced the idea of joining in a binding pact. Once the administration said it was reversing the course set by President George W. Bush, China, India and other nations also agreed to endorse the goal of a mandatory treaty.

The Bush administration had said it preferred to push for voluntary reductions in mercury emissions because the process of negotiating a treaty would be long and cumbersome.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program, said yesterday's announcement marks the culmination of a seven-year effort to address a significant environmental and public health problem.

"Only a few weeks ago, nations remained divided on how to deal with this major public health threat which touches everyone in every country of the world," Steiner said. "Today, the world's environment ministers, armed with the full facts and full choices, decided the time for talking was over -- the time for action on this pollution is now."

Formal negotiations will begin late this year, and U.N. officials hope to conclude the talks by 2013. The White House issued a statement saying a future treaty would use "a combination of legally binding and voluntary commitments" to cut mercury emissions from industrial processes as well as coal-fired power plants and small-scale mining.

"The United States will play a leading role in working with other nations to craft a global, legally binding agreement that will prevent the spread of mercury into the environment and improve the health of workers, pregnant women and children throughout the world," said Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in the statement.

A range of industrial activities, including the production of chlorine and the burning of coal, release mercury, which then falls to the earth and the sea in precipitation. The neurotoxin accumulates in fish and marine mammals in the form of methylmercury, which poses a threat to humans when consumed.

While the majority of mercury exposure in the United States stems from non-domestic emissions, all 50 states have issued mercury contamination advisories for fish in their waters. Marine mammals eaten by native Arctic peoples, such as pilot and beluga whales, have mercury concentrations that exceed recommended levels.

Environmentalist Susan Egan Keane, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended the Nairobi session, called the agreement "an amazing and astonishing turn of events."

"For six or seven years, the Bush administration had absolutely blocked any attempt to create a legally binding instrument," Keane said. "The Obama administration, within three or four weeks of inauguration, was able to put that into reverse."

Jeff Holmstead, who formerly worked at the Environmental Protection Agency and now represents U.S. utilities and refineries as the head of Bracewell & Giuliani's environmental strategies group, praised the decision even as he warned that some nations may balk at making the kind of reductions from power plants that America has already achieved.

"Although it may take time to negotiate a workable international treaty, it is clear that mercury is a global issue that will require meaningful and enforceable commitments from developing and developed nations alike -- much like efforts to deal with climate change," Holmstead said.

In an interview earlier this month, Steiner said the agreement "will be a major, confidence-building boost for not only the chemicals and health agenda but right across the environmental challenges of our time, from biodiversity loss to climate change."

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