Coming after years of intense pressure, the decision by ERCO — one of the country's largest emitters of mercury — to stop using the metal was seen by many in the environmental community as a major victory. A subsidiary of Superior Plus Income Fund, a company based in Toronto, ERCO announced it would convert its chlor-alkali plant outside Port Edwards, WI, to a mercury-free plant in 2009. Until now, the ERCO plant had been one of only five plants in the U.S. using mercury to produce chlorine.
According to federal records, the plant released close to 1,118 pounds of mercury into the air in 2005 — easily making it the largest polluter in Wisconsin and the 15th largest source in the country. Environmentalists had made the case for years that mercury — which falls into lakes, streams and oceans where it enters the food chain — posed a serious threat to public health. Their victory, however, masks a greater uncertainty: namely, what to do with the 200 tons of mercury on hand at ERCO's chlor-alkali plant? If past practices are any indication, the hundreds of tons of mercury may soon end up on the world market where — after being funneled to various developing countries lacking stringent environmental regulations — they could drift back to contaminate rivers and oceans. The EPA estimates that at least 276 tons of mercury were exported by U.S. companies in 2005 alone — a figure that has no doubt risen since in the face of increasing demand by resource-hungry countries.
While environmental groups have long urged the EPA to store mercury supplies instead of letting them be sold to other nations, the agency has refused to deliberate on the matter, agreeing only to "study" the issue. A recent spate of articles discussing the health risks of mercury and a bill introduced by Sen. Barack Obama — which would prevent mercury from being exported and force the remaining chlor-alkali plants to switch to clean technologies by 2012 — may soon prompt it to action, however.
Unless we find a way to pressure the EPA and these companies to stop exporting mercury, victories such as this may prove empty in the long run. As Eric Uram, the founder of Mercury Free Wisconsin, put it: "What's happening in Port Edwards is great news, but the fear is this mercury could come back to haunt us."
Via ::Chicago Tribune: Big polluter to cut mercury (newspaper)