groundWork cautions South African government on meeting with USA Delegation at the 23rd UNEP Governing Council / Global Ministerial Environment Forum

Nairobi, Kenya, 20 February 2005 - Mercury [1] pollution is coming under the spotlight at the 23rd UNEP Governing Council / Global Ministerial Environment Forum which will take place in Nairobi from the 21-25 February in Nairobi, Kenya. At this gathering the South African delegation will be meeting with the US delegation in Nairobi to discuss mercury management.

At the Governing Council meeting groundWork, [2] together with other international environmental organisations, [3] are calling governments to take action against global mercury pollution by taking immediate steps to reduce mercury contamination through use and emission reduction, while developing an international binding agreement on mercury. A proposal outlining action plans to be taken by governments has been submitted to the Governing Council this week (See Attachment Two).

Failure of the US government with regard to Thor Chemicals

In the 1980’s American Cyanamid, US based Borden Chemicals and Plastics, and other corporations sent waste containing mercury to Cato-Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The material was sent to a plant owned and operated by a British firm, Thor Chemicals to be reprocessed into usable mercury. In 1994, after several workers died at the plant, the South African government prohibited the plant from operating. Since then stockpiled mercury waste is still sitting on the property, and has since leaked toxic chemicals into the environment. The US Department of Justice in the 1990s let the statute of limitations expire and Borden Chemicals was let off the hook. groundWork has asked for the waste to be sent back to the original producer in the country of origin (Extender Producer Responsibility).

Considering that the US legal system would not allow for the mercury waste to be recalled and that the Bush administration has recently ordered the EPA (attachment two) to set back limits for emission criteria for mercury from power plants in order to line up with the US’s free-market approaches, the meeting between the SA government and the American government at this week’s gathering, needs to be carefully monitored.

“We cannot have the South African government being influenced by the USA administration when developing a South African position on mercury,” cautions Llewellyn Leonard, Waste Campaigner at groundWork. “The USA has failed South Africa on mercury management previously and has used us as a dumping ground.”

Campaigners at the Nairobi meeting will be pushing for the European Commission’s advocacy of a global phase-out of mercury primary production, and encouraging countries to stop surpluses re-entering the market by presenting an initiative similar to the Montreal Protocol on substances harmful to the ozone layer. While it is important that countries agree on a new global binding instrument on mercury, a parallel track of commitment on immediate concrete global actions also needs to be ensured and coordinated internationally to minimize global mercury production and contamination.

For more information please call:

Llewellyn Leonard – 082 353 5029, Inter Continental Nairobi, 09 254 20 3200 0000 Room # 245

Bobby Peek – 082 464 1383 / 033 342 5662


[1] Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, ecosystems and wildlife. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses have serious adverse effects on the central nervous, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. Mercury has no respect for national or regional boundaries as it travels great distances through the atmosphere. It has contaminated global food supplies at levels which pose a significant risk to human health, according to medical and public health professionals around the world.

[2] groundWork,, is an environmental justice campaigning organisation working with vulnerable communities challenging air pollution, waste and corporate abuse.

[3] The other environmental organisations are:

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),, is a private, U.S. not-for-profit environmental organization that uses science, law, and the support of more 500,000 members nationwide to protect the planet’s wildlife and wild places, and to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things;

The European Environmental Bureau, (EEB),, is a federation of more then 140 environmental citizens’ organisations based in all EU Member States and most Accession Countries, as well as in a few neighbouring countries. These organisations range from local and national, to European and international. The aim of the EEB is to protect and improve the environment of Europe and to enable the citizens of Europe to play their part in achieving that goal.

The Ban Mercury Working Group,, is an international coalition of 27 public interest non-governmental organisations from around the world formed initially in 2002 by 2 US based NGOs, the Basel Action Network ( and the Mercury Policy Project ( working to end pollution from the toxic metal -- Mercury.

Greenpeace, and with the support of NGOs from India (Toxics Link), China (Global Village of Beijing), Brazil (Association for Combats against the POPS), South Africa (groundWork, Friends of the Earth, South Africa) and Alaska (International Indian Treaty Council).

Attachment one:

Environmental NGO Mercury Proposal

§ Adopt aggressive but realistic global goals of a 50% reduction in mercury consumption by 2010 and an 80% reduction by 2015, versus 2000 levels.

§ Prepare annual reports tracking elemental mercury production and trade, and global consumption trends, based upon data vetted for consistency, accuracy, and completeness.

§ Prevent the introduction of surplus mercury into the global marketplace by:

§ Reduce global demand in the chlor-alkali sector by publicly benchmarking the relationship between mercury consumption and chlorine production at all facilities to encourage short-term improvements in operating practices, and by phasing out mercury use in the chlor-alkali sector over the next 10 years.

§ End the manufacture and trade of mercury-containing soaps and cosmetics, and educate health professionals and populations at risk about the adverse human health effects attributable to use of these products.

§ Promote the phase-out of mercury use in batteries, paints, switches, relays, measuring devices, and potentially other products and processes where non-mercury alternatives exist or become available over the next ten years by targeting key countries or regions where production or consumption is substantial, encouraging inventory preparation in such countries or regions, and sharing information on alternative technologies, and relevant laws and standards.

§ Develop and implement a global strategy to promote the use of non-mercury and lower mercury use technologies in small-scale gold mining.

§ Control the largest global source of mercury emissions by employing best available technology on the larger coal-fired power plants by 2012 and all coal-fired power plants by 2017.

§ Prepare reports on the remaining mercury use in vaccines and the extent of financial and other resources required to adequately manage large abandoned mercury sites in countries requiring such assistance.

§ On a parallel track, develop a global legally binding instrument to ensure coordinated international commitments and cooperation to minimize mercury production, trade, releases and consumption.

§ Encourage voluntary contributions sufficient to support the above mentioned actions, the creation of a mercury unit within UNEP, and ensure the active participation of developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

Attachment two:

EPA Inspector Finds Mercury Proposal Tainted

Agency Staff Were Told to Set Limits Backing Bush's 'Clear Skies' Initiative, Report Says

By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, February 4, 2005; Page A04

The Environmental Protection Agency ignored scientific evidence and agency protocols in order to set limits on mercury pollution that would line up with the Bush administration's free-market approaches to power plant pollution, according to a report released yesterday by the agency's inspector general.

Staff at the EPA were instructed by administrators to set modest limits on mercury pollution, and then had to work backward from the predetermined goal to justify the proposal, according to a report by Inspector General Nikki Tinsley.

Mercury is a toxic metal released as a byproduct by coal-burning power plants and other industries, and it is known to have a range of harmful health effects, especially on young children and pregnant women.

The proposal in contention was issued by the agency in December 2003 to clamp down on pollution by mercury, which also occurs naturally in the environment. Tinsley called for an "unbiased" restructuring of the plan, even if it meant delaying the rule beyond next month, which was when it was to be finalized.

Agency officials said yesterday that Tinsley did not understand the science and limitations of mercury control, disputing her charges that the proposal was politically biased or scientifically unsound. Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said she expects the final mercury rule to be released next month on schedule.

Although industry scientists said Tinsley had exceeded both her mandate and her expertise, two staff members at the agency involved in the rule-making said the report accurately described the pressures placed on staff by political appointees.

"I don't think anyone has ever seen as much political influence in the development of a rule as we saw in this rule," said one EPA staff member, who attended meetings between administrators and staff. "Everything about this rule was decided at a political level. . . . The political level made the decisions, and the staff did what they were told."

This staff member and another, both of whom asked for anonymity because they feared the consequences of being identified, said that instead of considering a range of possibilities, staff members were told they had only one.

“Maybe we would have come to the same conclusion [anyway], but we didn't necessarily look at the other options," the second staff member said. "We were driven by one option."

The agency's plan made clear that the EPA preferred to regulate mercury in a manner similar to the proposals in President Bush's "Clear Skies" legislative initiative, which has been bogged down in Congress. This cap-and-trade approach calls for a system whereby polluters must meet collective pollution-control targets but can trade credits so that not all plants must meet the same standard. It aims for overall reductions in mercury of about 29 percent by 2010, and a total reduction of 70 percent by 2018.

Industry welcomed the proposal, which involved lower costs and less burdensome regulations.

The only alternative to the plan was the more conventional approach to pollutants -- a cap on the pollution emitted at every plant. This proposal called on power plants to reduce mercury emissions from about 48 tons a year to 34 tons by 2008 -- a reduction of about 25 percent.

The IG's report criticized both ideas. It said the free-market approach did not fully account for "hot spots" -- areas that could end up with higher levels of pollutants under the cap-and-trade system -- and several specific health concerns, including the impact on Native American tribes.

The 25 percent target in the other option was smaller than it should have been, the report said, and was obtained only after scientists were given the number and told to find ways to justify it.