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United States Proposes Decision on Mercury at 25 GC/GMEF

Statement of Daniel A. Reifsnyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Sustainable Development U.S. Department of State


February 16, 2009

Nairobi, Kenya

Intervention on Mercury

Thank you Mr. Chairman, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to express the views of the United States on this important issue, and I encourage other delegates to take this opportunity in the plenary to express their own views so we can carefully gauge the progress we may be able to make at this meeting prior to breaking into a contact group.

Implications of Mercury Pollution

The United States has made great strides in addressing mercury contamination at home.

However, more than half of all mercury deposition within the United States comes from sources outside our borders. In the United States, mercury is the most common cause of fish contaminant advisories, and presents a major concern for public health as well as fisheries and commerce. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warn that pregnant women and young

children should avoid consuming fish that are high in mercury. Despite the major efforts currently undertaken domestically by U.S. Federal, State, and local authorities to reduce mercury levels in rivers and streams, currently all 50 states have fish advisories. In recognition of the importance of this issue, in 2008, under the leadership of our now President Obama, the United States' Congress passed the Mercury Export Ban Act to ban exports of elemental mercury beginning in 2013. However, neither the United States, nor any other country can achieve sufficient reductions of mercury risks to protect the health of its citizens without serious cooperation internationally to reduce global mercury emissions.

International Discussions on Mercury

I believe it is valuable to recall how the Governing Council has arrived at this point in the discussion. In 2001, the international environmental community began to focus on mercury when it launched the global mercury assessment to understand better the significance and sources of mercury as a global pollutant. The report from that assessment clearly set out the threat that mercury poses to human health and the environment, and the nature of mercury as a global pollutant. In 2003 and 2005, the Governing Council began substantively to address concerns over mercury, first by establishing a Mercury Program in UNEP, and second by launching a mercury partnership program. The United States has been a strong supporter of both of these developments and has contributed over $5 million to the Partnership. We are pleased with the significant work done by UNEP and the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership.

Over the years, there has been a significant amount of highly productive and valuable work that has further clarified our knowledge of the issues surrounding mercury, especially as they relate to anthropogenic sources of mercury and its long-range transport.

The productive discussions at the two meetings of the Open-Ended Working Group, the numerous meetings on partnerships, and the intergovernmental process to develop UNEP's global mercury assessment have provided vital information to evolve our understanding since the early days of discussion of this issue. We congratulate Achim Steiner and the UNEP Chemicals Secretariat for the work that has enabled us to explore this issue in depth and further consider the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to address mercury globally.

The U.S. position on mercury

We have now arrived at a point where there is a call to come together to launch an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international agreement on mercury;

The United States now joins that call.

We are prepared, Mr. Co-Chair to help lead in developing a global legally binding instrument for mercury. We believe that:

- Now is the time for governments to launch an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC);

- The first negotiating session should begin this year with the goal of completing negotiations prior to the 2012 Governing Council (GC)/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF);

- The mandate of the INC should be devoted exclusively to mercury;

- It should be comprehensive, addressing all significant sources of mercury emissions, with particular attention to sectors that have the greatest global impact such as coal-fired power plants and other sources of unintentional air emissions;

- Financial resources for implementation should focus on priority issues of greatest global concern;

- It should include approaches tailored to specific emissions sectors, and contain a level of flexibility to achieve our global goals while allowing countries discretion in terms of their path to implementation;

- Governments should support the UNEP Mercury Program and Global Mercury Partnership to continue their work concurrent with the negotiations.

To aid in understanding the specific approach we advocate, my delegation has submitted a conference room paper that urges a simple streamlined approach to a decision at this meeting.

It is clear that mercury is the most important global chemical issue facing us today that calls for immediate action. Mercury is a chemical of global concern specifically due to its long range environmental transport, its persistence in the environment once introduced, its ability to bio-accumulate in ecosystems, and its significant negative effects or human health and the environment. The United States does not support adding additional substances to an agreement on mercury, or diverting valuable time and attention to other issues by debating criteria and parameters for an adding mechanism.

We urge delegates to focus on those issues where we can find agreement.

This is not to say that we do not understand concerns that colleagues have variously expressed about other chemicals, in particular lead and cadmium. In our view such concerns are better addressed in other fora such as Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which will meet later this year. In particular, we are strongly interested in considering a partnership to remove lead from paint, similar, perhaps, to the partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles that has so successfully helped remove lead from gasoline. However, we do not favour expanding the mandate on mercury to other chemicals.

We should seek to ensure broad participation among governments in a mercury agreement by including flexibility such as transition periods and phased implementation. We should apply tailored approaches that address the sector-specific nature of mercury emissions and the technologies and methods used to reduce emissions. We need to be creative and flexible in our approaches, while at the same time ensuring that we make significant progress.

The United States supports further action by UNEP in the near term to access options for reducing emissions from coal combustion and other significant sectors, and comparing the relative costs of different options. It will also be vital to understand better the size and types of sources that need to be addressed, as well as the existing pollution control equipment currently in place. This type of survey should include information on the co-benefits of efforts to address conventional pollution control and climate change. This work will help to inform the INC to understand better the options for this sector and prioritize actions to reduce mercury emissions.

The timing of implementation of commitments for different sectors may vary depending on the complexity of the actions, but it should be clear that all significant sources of mercury should be included in the mandate of the INC.

Financial Consideration

We realize that there is much interest and need to discuss the financial aspects of an agreement and we understand that this is an important issue for many countries. In order to concentrate available financial resources on issues of greatest global concern, our focus should be on efficient, cost-effective actions to address priority sources that cause the most environmental impact. Awareness building programs are important components of capacity building in developing countries and should also be supported. The UNEP Global Mercury Partnership has been very effective in raising awareness of mercury issues among a broad range of participants and can serve as a model for future action.

In fact, regardless of the outcome of the decision on the mercury instrument, it is imperative that the Partnership activities continue and expand, since any agreement will take years to come to fruition.

Under the guidance of the Partnership Advisory Group, the Partnership can play an important role for near term action on mercury to priority sectors. We urge all donors, particularly those who have not done so, to contribute to the Partnership as an effective near team instrument to address mercury pollution.

While we strongly encourage UNEP to continue to support the work of the partnership and to take the lead on conducting additional activities during the interim period, it is imperative that any request that we make of UNEP include explicit understanding that the work will be supported with appropriate levels of funding to complete the task. Delegates should work together to ensure that we don't overburden UNEP in this regard, so that it can continue to function as an effective facilitator of our efforts.

We have an opportunity at this GC to work together on a decision that will allow us to take further steps in addressing global mercury pollution. This delegation is prepared to engage fully with other governments and stakeholders to seek solutions that ensure a comprehensive path forward that effectively addresses mercury emissions on a global basis. I thank you Mr. Co- Chair for this opportunity to address the Council, and anticipate that productive and positive discussions will take place at this meeting that will set us on a path of cooperation and progress.




Further Resources

United States Statement on Mercury at 25 GC/GMEF
(Film Clip)

Golden Opportunity to Deal With Poisonous Quicksilver Pollution
(Press Release)

UNEP Chemicals Branch - Mercury Programme Website



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