Select Committee on European Scrutiny Fortieth Report


13. MERCURY FROM THE CHLOR-ALKALI INDUSTRY


(23822)
12210/02
COM(02) 489

Commission Report to the Council on mercury from the chlor-alkali industry.


Legal base:
Document originated:6 September 2002
Deposited in Parliament: 7 October 2002
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration: EM of 18 October 2002
Previous Committee Report: None
To be discussed in Council: November 2002
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared


Background

  13.1  Mercury pollution has long been regarded as global, diffuse and chronic, its toxicity and bioaccumulative nature leading to well-known effects on the nervous, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. As such it poses obvious risks to animals and humans, with populations having a high intake of fish being especially vulnerable. One of the most important users is the chlor-alkali industry, which produces chlorine and alkali by electrolysis, using either mercury, diaphragm or membrane cells. Within the Community, mercury is the predominant technology, accounting for 54% of the chlorine produced by the 47 plants concerned, which in turn contain some 12,000 — 15,000 tonnes of mercury.

  13.2  The Commission says that the use of mercury in this industry has now become an issue because the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive (96/61/EC) requires that the best available techniques should be used, and a study carried out by the European IPPC Bureau has concluded that the use of the mercury cell process in the European chlor-alkali industry should be phased out in favour of those using membranes.

The current document

  13.3  This Report identifies the implications of such a step, and begins by pointing out that world mining production of mercury is currently put at around 1,650 tonnes, and is confined to about 10 countries, the only dedicated mine in Europe being in Spain (Almaden). It says that, because of the numerous restrictions on products containing mercury, its use in western Europe and North America has been declining at a time when the supply of mercury recovered from various uses has increased as a result of environmental regulation. This has led to a steady decline in prices, and to most developed countries becoming net exporters to developing countries, where mercury is used for gold prospecting, and in the production of cosmetics, paints and pesticides. The Commission comments that the potential pollution and health implications of this trade need to be given full consideration, as does the threat of a significant part of the mercury in question returning to Europe as a consequence of long-range transboundary air pollution.

  13.4  The Report goes on to set out the various legal instruments relating to this area. These include:

  • IPPC Directive

    As noted in paragraph 1.2 above, the mercury cell process used by the chlor-alkali industry is not considered to be the best available technology under this Directive, and consequently its use by existing installations will have to be phased out by 30 October 2007. However, the Commission also notes that national authorities will be responsible for decisions relating to an individual plant, taking into account such factors as its technical characteristics, location and local environmental conditions.
  • Community water legislation

    The Commission notes that the Community legislation dealing with dangerous substances lays down emission limit values and quality objectives for mercury discharges by the chlor-alkali industry, as a result of which mercury pollution of the aquatic environment has been reduced substantially. It also points out that, under the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), mercury has been identified as a "priority hazardous substance", and that consequently measures will be prepared to phase out discharges, emissions and losses over the next 20 years.
  • Community waste legislation

    The Commission says that, although the Waste Framework Directive contains a definition of waste, it cannot be assumed that mercury obtained from decommissioned cells, which is pure and similar to that sold on the open market, can be regarded as such, since this will depend upon individual circumstances, and would thus have to be decided on a case by case basis.
  • Community occupational health legislation

    The Commission says that Council Directive 98/24/EC on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks of chemical agents allows the setting of occupational exposure limits and a biological limit value for mercury, and that, following a recommendation by the relevant Scientific Committee, it "may propose" a European occupational exposure limit.
  • Rotterdam Convention

    The Commission says that this Convention specifies that, for certain hazardous chemicals entering international trade, the prior informed consent (PIC) of the importing party is needed. It adds that mercury is not currently among the substances listed under the Convention, or under the Regulation it has proposed to give effect to the Convention within the Community, but that it should be possible to make the necessary amendments.
  • Oslo and Paris Convention (OSPAR)

    The Commission notes that an OSPAR Decision in 1990 recommends that existing mercury chlor-alkali plants should be phased out as soon as practicable, the aim being their complete phasing out by 2010. However, it adds that this Decision has not been formally approved by the Council, and that the Community therefore has no obligation to comply with it.

  13.5  The remainder of the Report deals with the consequences of phasing out the mercury cell process, and the ways in which the problems arising from this can be addressed. Essentially, the Commission concludes that this measure would in principle represent a step forward for the environment, in that it will significantly reduce mercury emissions, but that the decommissioning process will lead to some 12,000 - 15,000 tonnes of mercury becoming available in the Community in the coming years. It says that, if this is not dealt with properly, it could represent a higher risk for the environment than the present confined use within the chlor-alkali industry, and that the fate of the decommissioned mercury is thus of crucial importance.

  13.6  The Report identifies three basic ways of handling this mercury, as follows:

  • Re-use

    It says that this currently involves either re-use in the remaining chlor-alkali installations; placing the residual mercury on the market; or its being taken up by the Almaden mine in Spain. However, the Report notes that the scope for the first and third of these outlets is likely to decline as more mercury cell plants are decommissioned, and that a declining market for mercury makes it likely that the second option would involve a significant quantity being exported to uncertain destinations.
  • Intermediate storage

    The Commission says that mercury could be stored safely at its place of production, at the Almedan mine, or elsewhere, until a strategy for its re-use and/or safe disposal is available. However, it also comments that this would create additional costs for an unforeseeable length of time.
  • Definitive storage

    The Commission says that this would be the optimal solution, and represent a sustainable approach to reduce mercury emissions from an environmental point of view, in that emissions of mercury would be prevented. However, it adds that appropriate methods are not yet fully developed, and that the costs would be relatively high. It also comments that the "polluter pays" principle might be applied, but that this could affect the competitiveness of the European chlor-alkali industry.

The Government's view

  13.7  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 18 October 2002, the Minister of State (Environment) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Michael Meacher) says that there are three chlor-alkali plants in the UK, all in England (at Runcorn, Sandbach and Chesterfield), with a capacity for producing in all some 858,000 tonnes of chlorine annually. All three are currently regulated under UK legislation (the Environment Protection Act 1990), though this system is gradually being replaced by the IPPC Directive, and the three plants will have to apply to the Environment Agency for an IPPC permit by 31 December 2004, and to replace their mercury cells before the end of 2007.

  13.8  More generally, the Minister says that the Commission's Report provides a sensible discussion of the options, and that the Government agrees with its conclusions both on the likely status of decommissioned mercury under Community waste legislation, and on the environmental damage which it could cause if it is not dealt with in a safe and sustainable way. He says that the Government is also content with two suggestions in the Report — that installations should be encouraged to sell decommissioned mercury to the Almaden mine (provided this does not depress prices, and lead to the mercury going elsewhere), and that mercury should be added to the list of substances subject to the PIC Process under the Rotterdam Convention. On the other hand, the Minister considers that both intermediate and definitive storage would require very detailed appraisal, taking into account all relevant environmental and health and safety legislation, and that any Community action would need to be harmonised with wider international initiatives, such as the global assessment of mercury which will be presented next year to the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Conclusion

  13.9  Whilst we note that the Report does not propose any firm action, and are thus content to clear it, we nevertheless think it raises issues of which the House should be aware — in particular, the Commission's conclusion that, if this matter is not dealt with properly, it could represent a higher risk for the environment than the present confined use within the chlor-alkali industry, and the concern expressed about the implications of an increasing quantity of mercury being exported to developing countries.




 
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