U.S. Agency Considers Selling Toxic Stockpile
By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
November 27, 2006
While the Bush administration promotes efforts to scrub mercury from the
environment, one federal agency is considering selling a huge stockpile of
the toxic metal on the world market.
The Department of Energy acknowledged last week that it is mulling 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 (D-Ill.) introduced legislation last summer that would prohibit
American exports of the silvery metal. That bill has a better 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
If the mercury is sold overseas, scientists and environmental groups are
concerned that it will drift 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
An Energy Department spokeswoman declined to provide details about the
agency's potential mercury sale, other than to confirm that 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.
`Health and ecological risks'
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
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
Price is on the rise
The price of mercury has increased along with gold prices during the last
five years. Sellers can fetch more than $700 for a 76-pound flask of
mercury, up from $150 six years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The European Union is considering a ban on mercury exports, which supporters
argue would shrink global supplies and drive up the cost enough to encourage
"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."
Critics say the Defense Department's decision to set aside its surplus
mercury shows it can be done elsewhere. The 7,500 tons currently held by
government and industry could be stored in a climate-controlled warehouse
the size of a Wal-Mart, Greer said.
`The government is paralyzed'
"For some reason, the government is paralyzed on this," said Michael Bender,
director of the Mercury Policy Project, an advocacy group. "But given what
we know about the toxicity of mercury, keeping it off the world market
should be a no-brainer."
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune