U.S. energy agency considers selling mercury stockpile

Idea to unload tons spurred by Democrat's bill barring export of the toxic metal

November 27, 2006|By Michael Hawthorne | Michael Hawthorne,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

While the Bush administration promotes efforts to scrub mercury from the environment, one federal agency is considering plans to sell a huge stockpile of the toxic metal on the world market.

The Department of Energy acknowledged last week that it is weighing whether to unload more than 1,300 tons of mercury it collected over the years for processing materials used to make hydrogen bombs.

Agency officials started discussing a potential sale after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, introduced legislation this summer that would prohibit American exports of the silvery metal. That bill has a greater chance of passing now that Democrats control Congress.

The need for mercury in military and industrial processes has evaporated with the development of less harmful alternatives. But the federal government still holds reserves that account for three-quarters of the national supply.

If the mercury is sold overseas, scientists and environmental groups are concerned it will end up drifting back to the U.S. through air pollution.

"They know it's a global pollutant that can harm people, especially pregnant women and children," said Linda Greer, director of the environment and health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If they flood the market, how do we persuade the rest of the world to work on solving this problem?"

An Energy Department spokeswoman declined to provide details about the agency's potential mercury sale, other than to confirm the option is under consideration. The agency's stockpile is five times larger than all of the mercury exported by U.S. businesses in 2004, the last year for which figures are available.

By contrast, the Defense Department decided two years ago to keep its 4,400-ton stockpile off the market. The agency said it opted to store the mercury to avoid "human health and ecological risks."

Once used widely in batteries, electrical switches and chlorine manufacturing, mercury now is considered one of the world's most toxic substances.

Mercury pollution that falls into lakes and rivers is converted into a dangerous organic form that moves up the food chain from fish to people. The federal government estimated last year that 410,000 babies are born each year at risk for mercury poisoning in the U.S. because of high levels in their mother's bodies.

The largest manmade source of mercury pollution is emissions from coal-fired power plants, which are responsible for about half of the 3,000 tons of mercury churned into the atmosphere each year, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

Bush administration officials have been promoting rules that would curb emissions from power plants. They also have been encouraging efforts to recycle mercury-filled switches and other devices.

Gold mining in developing countries is the second largest source of mercury emissions, releasing about 1,000 tons a year. The UN says most of the mercury sold on the world market ends up in small-scale mining operations with little or no equipment to prevent the metal from being released into the air.

The price of mercury has increased along with gold prices during the past five years. Sellers can fetch more than $700 for a 76-pound flask of mercury, up from $150 six years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The European Union is considering its own ban on mercury exports, which supporters argue would shrink global supplies and drive up the cost enough to encourage alternatives.

"These alternatives will not be adopted by developing countries, however, as long as mercury remains readily available in worldwide commerce," Obama wrote this month in a letter urging Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to block the agency from selling its stockpile.

A deluge of mercury already is expected on the world market. Two American chemical plants that use large amounts of mercury to make chlorine are shutting down, and Obama is pushing another bill that would require six other chlorine plants to close or switch to mercury-free technology by 2012.

Those plants turn salt, or sodium chloride, into chlorine gas and caustic soda by pumping a briny solution through electrified vats of mercury. The industry had more than 2,600 tons of mercury on hand at the end of 2005, according to the Chlorine Institute, a trade group.

Industry representatives have said they are willing to give up the mercury if the federal government agrees to take it.

So far federal officials have only agreed to study the issue.

"At this point, we don't support an export ban," said Maria Doa, director of the National Program Chemicals Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "We want to address the issue of all this excess mercury, but we need to do it in cooperation with the various stakeholders."

Michael Hawthorne writes for the Chicago Tribune

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