Minamata mercury treaty finds skeptics

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Delegates from about 130 countries will gather Wednesday in the Kumamoto Prefecture cities of Minamata and Kumamoto for a three-day meeting to finalize a new international treaty seeking to ban or greatly limit the use of mercury.

But critics say the treaty contains too many loopholes for it to be effective, and many people victimized by Minamata disease take exception to the treaty’s name, posing a political headache for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government.

The treaty — the Minamata Convention on Mercury — aims to ban primary mercury mining, including the operation of new mines, and greatly limit the manufacture, import and export of mercury-added products. It also seeks to ban the use of mercury in most manufacturing processes, and to control its emissions.

The convention will also set guidelines on the management of mercury waste storage and contaminated sites.

The convention is the result of four years of negotiations at the United Nations, and has been called by governments and many nongovernmental organizations as the world’s last chance to clamp down on mercury emissions, which can cause brain and kidney damage.

Just how much a problem mercury emissions in the atmosphere have become was made clear in The United Nations Environment Program’s Global Mercury Assessment 2013 report released early this year.

UNEP estimated that global emissions to the air from anthropogenic sources reached 1,960 tons in 2010. About 727 tons annually comes from artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, especially in western Africa. Coal burning emitted some 475 tons of mercury, also in 2010, the UNEP report said.

By region, Asia contributes almost half of global anthropogenic mercury emissions into the air. East and Southeast Asia alone account for 40 percent of the world’s total.

Humans are also responsible for releasing at least 1,000 tons of mercury per year into the water. Much of this comes from coal power plants, factories and contaminated industrial sites.

Deforestation accounts for nearly 260 tons of mercury annually being discharged into rivers and lakes. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining, which uses mercury to separate gold dust from silt, is releasing nearly 800 tons of mercury per year into the water and land.

But the very name Minamata Convention on Mercury is contentious. Minimata disease victims’ groups have called on Tokyo and the U.N. to change the name, calling it inappropriate, given the way the victims have long battled with the central government.

“Authentic victims have been denied recognition. A comprehensive health study of the disaster was never performed,” Yoichi Tani of the Collaboration Center for Minamata Disease Victims said earlier this year.

In a statement last year, five other Minamata victims’ organizations expressed concern that the convention fails to address the responsibility of polluters for contaminated sites and for bearing the costs for restoration or rehabilitation.

Other NGOs have expressed concern that allowing small-scale gold mining to continue fails to address a major source of mercury pollution.

A Shiga Prefectural University research team announced last week that mercury levels at the summit of Mount Fuji were about 2.8 nanograms per cubic meter of air in August. However, the readings have varied and much higher levels have been recorded in the past.

The Environment Ministry, which monitors mercury levels at 261 points nationwide, said the average monthly concentration during fiscal 2011 was 2.1 nanograms. Domestic law requires the yearly average to be under 40 nanograms.

The higher than average levels on Mount Fuji are believed to be due to mercury-tainted pollution drifting across Japan from coal-fired plants in China.