Brussels, 22 December 2008
The European Commission welcomes a voluntary agreement to ensure the safe storage of surplus mercury from the European chlor-alkali industry, once a ban on exports of the highly toxic metal from the European Union takes effect. The legislation requires that mercury that is no longer used, be stored in a way preventing its release. Euro Chlor, the European association of the chlor-alkali industry – the chemical industry sector responsible for chlorine and caustic soda production – has agreed to ensure safe storage under optimal conditions, when the legislation comes into effect in 2011. This is the first voluntary industry agreement to be formally recognised by a Commission Recommendation since the adoption of a Communication on environmental agreements in 2002.
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "We congratulate Euro Chlor for this proactive initiative which will ensure that several thousand tonnes of mercury will be taken out of circulation and safely stored away. This voluntary agreement is an excellent example of how industry can take an active role in helping implement important environmental legislation that will protect the health of European citizens and the environment."
Alistair Steel, Executive Director of Euro Chlor, said: “On behalf of our member companies we welcome this official recognition. We are pleased to be one of the first industry sectors to have a voluntary agreement acknowledged by the European Commission. This agreement underlines our strong belief that industry should take responsibility to help deal with environmental issues.”
Voluntary agreement by Euro Chlor
In September 2008, legislation was adopted banning all exports of mercury from the European Union with effect from March 2011. The new legislation also called for mercury that is no longer used in the chlor-alkali industry or that is produced in other major industrial operations, to be safely stored. Euro Chlor, the business association representing chlor-alkali producers in the EU and the European Free Trade Association regions, has pledged to ensure safe underground storage of mercury surpluses from the industry once this ban takes effect. Although the new legislation makes safe storage an obligation, Euro Chlor has agreed to go beyond the requirements of the legislation. Surplus mercury will be removed from decommissioned chlorine plants, transported to its final destination in approved sealed steel containers and preferably stored in deep underground salt mines. These mines provide safe final disposal of mercury as there is no humidity or possibility of corrosion. The Commission will develop the specific technical criteria the locations will have to meet, as well as rigorous safety requirements to be observed at the sites.
This is the first voluntary commitment from industry to be formally acknowledged by a Commission Recommendation since the Commission laid down common rules and principles on environmental agreements in 2002. Voluntary environmental agreements are seen as a complementary regulatory tool which offers industry an opportunity to take a proactive role in helping to solve environmental problems.
Use of mercury is declining at both global and EU levels. Yet some significant uses remain. Globally, the main uses of mercury are in small-scale gold mining, the chlor-alkali industry and, mainly in China, the acetylene based process for the production of PVC. In the EU, only the chlor-alkali industry remains a significant industrial user, and it is progressively phasing out the use of mercury-containing cells for production of chlorine. At the moment, this mercury is being returned to the world market but this will end with the phasing out of exports from the EU under the new legislation.
Dangers of mercury exposure
Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. Mercury persists in the environment, where it can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury readily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children, is of greatest concern.
The export ban and the safe storage of surplus supplies of mercury are key parts of the EU's strategy for reducing the global supply of mercury and thereby limiting emissions of mercury into the environment. The Commission launched the EU’s mercury strategy – a comprehensive plan addressing mercury pollution both in the EU and globally – in January 2005. It contains 20 measures to reduce mercury emissions, cut supply and demand and protect against exposure, especially to methylmercury found in fish.
For further details on the mercury strategy see:
 COM(2002)412, 17.7.2002