KUMAMOTO – A thousand delegates from about 140 nations adopted a treaty Thursday in Kumamoto regulating the use and trade of mercury at an international conference organized by the U.N. Environment Program.
The landmark Minamata Convention on Mercury is named after the Japanese city where industrial emissions of the toxic substance caused a poisoning disease affecting thousands of people.
The pact, which will take effect 90 days after ratification by 50 nations, maps out measures to curb health and environmental damage caused by mercury, “recognizing the substantial lessons of Minamata disease,” according to a text of the treaty.
Japan proposed the treaty’s name to show its resolve to prevent a recurrence of the Minamata disease tragedy caused by the discharge of mercury-laced wastewater by a local chemical plant.
“Each party shall not allow, by taking appropriate measures, the manufacture, import or export of mercury-added products” after the phaseout date of 2020, the text says, referring to a list of products, including fluorescent lamps, that contain a certain level of mercury.
The treaty also says “each party shall not allow the export of mercury except” for uses specified under the convention.
It also seeks to decrease the discharge of mercury into the air, water and land, to promote proper storage and disposal of mercury, as well as reduce the use and discharge of mercury in the process of gold mining in developing countries.
The pact, which is expected to take effect in 2016 at the earliest, also calls for a ban by 2018 on the use of mercury to produce acetaldehyde, which was the cause of Minamata disease.
It will also provide financial aid through a fund to developing countries to assist their efforts to cut mercury emissions, but does not refer to issues such as compensation for victims and who should be obliged to restore mercury-contaminated environments.
The treaty will ban mining of fresh mercury and only allow “primary mercury mining that was being conducted within its (party’s) territory at the date of entry into force of the Convention for it for a period of up to 15 years after that date.”
“The people have taken a stand to reduce the risks of mercury to the fullest extent possible,” Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told reporters after the treaty was adopted, and urged all nations to ratify the pact.
The adoption of the pact drew a mixed reaction from Minamata disease sufferers. While some welcomed it, others criticized the naming of the treaty after the city.
Minamata disease, caused by mercury-tainted water dumped by chemical-maker Chisso Corp., was officially recognized as a pollution-caused disease in 1968.
“The treaty is a new step forward for the world and Minamata,” Masami Ogata, a certified Minamata disease sufferer, said.
Ogata, 55, hails from the city of Minamata, where many people suffered from discrimination and prejudice because of the disease.
Yoritaka Mano, a member of the Minamata Municipal Assembly, expressed concern that the treaty, by being named after Minamata, would trigger harmful rumors about the coastal city.
“The assembly needs to keep an eye on this matter,” said Mano, who headed the assembly when it voiced opposition last December to the treaty’s name.
Ryuko Sakamoto, head of a Minamata-based citizens’ group for sufferers of the disease, said the pact is “extremely deficient” because it does not touch on the responsibility of polluters when the text calls for people to draw lessons from Minamata disease.