Bush Administration Weighs Creation of National Mercury Stockpile
by Dawn Reeves, InsideEPA.com
5 January 2007 –
The Bush administration is considering creating a national stockpile to store mercury from federal and state governments and private sources, according to a draft U.S. government document obtained by Inside EPA. If approved, the stockpile would alleviate concerns that the mercury is sold into international commerce, where it could contaminate air and water.
The plan comes as the United States is under increasing international pressure to support a ban on mercury sales, ahead of a United Nations conference on the issue next month. If a ban occurs, then EPA will be under pressure to resolve the mercury storage issue (Inside EPA, Dec. 22, 2006, p1).
The document, dated Dec. 18 and titled Draft Recommendation Paper for Managing Federal Stocks of Commodity Grade Mercury, says, "While there remains the need to develop a federal strategy on the management of all excess domestic mercury stocks, the U.S. government's actions not to sell mercury on the open market sends a positive message to both private and state domestic mercury holders, as well as to global environmental policymakers." Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.
The document references decisions by the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD) to stockpile their surplus mercury, after recent questions were raised about whether DOE was considering selling its estimated 1,300 tons of mercury.
"DOE's commitment to store its mercury sets the tone for a possible Blue Ribbon Panel to provide options to the U.S. government for addressing excess non-federal mercury surpluses," the document says.
Similarly, in an EPA road map released last year, the agency stated it would form a panel to address mercury stockpile issues, but the panel never got under way, in part hampered by speculation that DOE would sell its mercury.
At the same time, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman sent a Dec. 19 letter to Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) that says, "[T]he surplus mercury at Y-12 will remain in storage. The Department has no current plants to sell this inventory." Obama had queried the department about its plans in November.
At issue is whether the Bush administration will agree to not only store the government's surplus mercury but also mercury from the private sector and states. Federal waste law currently prohibits mercury disposal, which leads to mercury being recycled into global markets where it is often used in artisanal gold mining in developing nations. The practice harms miners and their families, and releases mercury back into the air, where it can redeposit in U.S. waterbodies.
The United States is facing international pressure to ban international sales of mercury surplus ahead of a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) meeting on the issue in February, where the State Department will consider initiating negotiations to support such a ban as part of an international mercury treaty. The European Union recently agreed to support an export ban.
The draft government document adds, "By committing to long-term storage of U.S. owned mercury, the U.S. government can develop a position for the UNEP Governing Council that: 1) Indicates that the U.S. has committed to storing 70 percent of its stocks, and 2) the U.S. government has in place a stakeholder process that will develop options for management of its remaining nonfederal stocks of mercury."
An environmentalist says the consideration of a national stockpile is "huge," adding, "We've been calling for that since 2001." The document -- combined with a State Department meeting with stakeholders to discuss the potential sales ban in mid-December ahead of the UNEP meeting -- shows "someone is listening," the source says.
"This issue has been elevated. I don't know to what level but it appears to look promising. It opens the door to both addressing the issue domestically and internationally, and that's a huge step forward," the environmentalist says.
A state source says the draft document has been described to -- but not shared with -- states. The source calls it "a high-level piece of work" by multiple government agencies.
Additionally, an industry source confirms that EPA and other agencies are holding preliminary discussions about developing a mercury stockpile but is unsure how far along the talks are. The source also cautions that EPA would need to write new regulations under the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act to remove the land-disposal restrictions for mercury -- a process the source says the agency has the regulatory authority to do -- and then could work on an interagency agreement to stockpile it.
EPA, DOE and State Department sources could not be reached for comment.
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