Sun, Aug 31, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Japan industry fights ‘Minamata’ costs as mercury ban looms

Reuters, TOKYO

Japan’s government lobbied hard for a global pact that limits mercury use and to name the resulting treaty after Minamata, the site of a homegrown industrial disaster from the 1950s when the toxic metal poured into a river, poisoning thousands.

However, a year after the Minamata Convention on Mercury was agreed in southwestern Japan, Japanese industries from smelters to cement makers are digging in to fight storage costs and emission curbs the still-pending treaty would impose.

The international pact, so far only ratified by the US, as other nations take time to iron out domestic regulations, would require countries to ban nearly all exports of the poisonous material.

Industry pressure in Japan could prevent the government doing much more than the bare minimum to comply with the treaty’s legal framework, leaving the door open to at least some mercury exports from the country and weakening the global crackdown on the metal’s use.

At issue is how far Japan will go under the more business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toward shutting down a system that has made its economy Asia’s largest net exporter of the material, typically churned out as a byproduct.

If Japan’s mercury exports are scaled back to virtually nothing as proposed, industries will need to secure disposal sites for tonnes of the poisonous metal in an earthquake-prone country where storing hazardous waste has become an especially fraught issue since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear crisis.

Japan’s effort to play a leading role in the international drive to curb mercury use dates back to 2010, when the now-opposition Democratic Party of Japan was in power, pushing an image of the country as a green powerhouse.

However, unlike the US and the EU, Japan has not unilaterally banned exports of mercury, widely used in small-scale gold mining operations in developing economies, such as Indonesia, and linked to environmental and health risks. That was largely due to worries over storage.

“Our top priority is to make and change laws so that we can comply with the treaty,” Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry head of chemical substance control Shuji Tamura said.

Debate on storage and issues such as the investment needed to reduce mercury emissions by coalfired power plants, waste incineration plants and cement factories is taking shape in three government advisory panels due to submit recommendations by the end of the year. Legislation is expected to be introduced as early as 2015.

The Japan Mining Industry Association, which represents big smelters like JX Nippon Mining & Metals, a unit of JX Holdings, and Sumitomo Metal Mining, in July asked the government for a limited change to regulations.

One government panel estimates Japan would need to secure total storage space equivalent to around the size of an Olympic swimming pool for mercury waste collected over 50 years if it limits exports.

That assumes Japan would keep recycling about 50 tonnes of the metal each year as it did in 2010, using that mercury in items such as fluorescent lights.

With the chance that storage could be dotted around the country, industry lobbyists say convincing local communities to host disposal sites would be a major challenge in one of the world’s most seismically active regions.

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