Pre-emption of mercurial hazards

On Oct. 10, some 1,000 delegates from about 140 countries adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which regulates the use and trade of mercury to prevent health hazards and environmental disruptions attributed to the liquid poisonous metal. The international conference, which was held in Minamata City on Oct. 9 and in Kumamoto City the following day, was organized by the U.N. Environment Program. The convention was signed the same day by 87 countries including Japan, the European Union, China and Brazil. The treaty will go into force in 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it.

On Japan’s proposal, the convention was named after Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture, where Minamata disease caused by methyl mercury released into the Minamata Bay by Chisso Corp broke out. The dreadful disease damages the central nervous system and has affected thousands of people.

As a country that has shown its resolve not to repeat the tragedy of the Minamata disease by playing an important role in writing the treaty, Japan has an international responsibility to ratify it as soon as possible and to extend effective aid to emerging economies and developing countries to help realize the goal and spirit of the treaty. Japan has pledged to extend $2 billion over three years from 2014 to developing countries.

The Japanese government also should not forget that the Minamata disease tragedy has not yet ended. It must expand the scope of its relief for Minamata disease sufferers so that every sufferer will be able to receive adequate support and assistance.

The treaty says that “geach party shall not allow the export of mercury except” for the uses specified under it. Countries that export mercury under this provision must get agreement from importing countries.

The production, export and import of nine products, including mercury-containing manometers, batteries and cosmetics and fluorescent lights that contain a certain level of mercury, will be banned in principle by 2020.

The treaty bans the use of mercury in the process to produce acetaldehyde by 2018. It must be recalled that Minamata disease was caused by mercury used in this production process. In Japan this production method is not used any more. Existing mercury mines will be closed and development of new mercury mines will be prohibited.

But the treaty stopped short of banning the release of mercury into the air, waters and soil. Instead it calls for reducing the amount of such releases.

Japan is now recycling mercury used in batteries and fluorescent lights and exporting extracted mercury — 84 tons in 2012. The Itomuka mining station run by Nomura Kosan Co. in Kitami, Hokkaido, located east of the Daisetsu mountain range, is doing the recycling work. If the treaty goes into effect, Japan must stop exporting mercury.

Therefore, it is an urgent task for Japan to develop technology to safely store mercury inside Japan semi-permanently. The treaty is expected to go into effect in 2016 at the earliest.

If mercury is buried underground, it will be difficult to detect leakage of mercury into the environment. The government should help the private sector develop a safe method to store mercury.

The central government and the Kumamoto prefectural government also must consider how to prevent leakage of mercury into the environment from Eco Park Minamata, which was completed in 1990 following the reclamation of 1.51 million cubic meters of sludge from the bottom of Minamata Bay, which contained mercury released by Chisso Corp.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since the park’s completion, and it’s possible that the steel shields at the park might have decayed. Both the central and Kumamoto governments must examine the shields promptly and strengthen them if necessary.

The international community must pay attention to the fact that mercury is still used during the extraction of gold from mud in small-scale mining operations and is released when coal is burned, especially during coal-burning thermal power generation. Many poor people in Asia, Africa and South America rely on small-scale gold mining for their livelihood, and emerging economies like China and India have many coal-burning thermal power stations.

According to the U.N. Environment Program, 1,960 tons of mercury were released into the air in 2010 — about 80 percent by developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The largest amount, 37 percent, was attributed to small-scale mining that vaporizes mercury when gold is extracted from mud.

It is important for Japan to use the $2 billion in aid it has pledged to developing countries to help them reduce the release of mercury into the environment.

Since small-scale gold mining is the main source of income for many poor people, the Japanese and local governments need to help develop industries well-suited to local areas so that poor people can find new ways to earn income.

At home, the Japanese government must pay attention to the 5-0 ruling by the Supreme Court’s Third Petit Bench on April 16. It said that in cases in which people seek official recognition as Minamata disease sufferers in order to qualify for benefits, a court should consider the particular conditions of the victim regardless of the Japanese government’s strict criteria. The criteria have not yet been relaxed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a message to delegates on Oct. 9 in Minamata City saying that Japan has overcome the hazards from mercury. This shows his lack of knowledge about the conditions faced by Minamata disease sufferers today. The government should adopt a policy that will provide adequate relief for every person who must live with this horrible illness.

The treaty has its shortcomings. It failed to include the principle of having polluters compensate victims of mercury-caused health hazards as well as restore the mercury-contaminated environment to the original state. The international community must review the treaty and improve it to incorporate this principle.Pre-emption of mercurial hazards.