13 September 2002 16:13 [Source: ICIS news]
Europe’s chlorine producers have by necessity become more proactive and the sector has shown it can respond more effectively to concerns over chlorine production and use. Notably this week it has supported the re-use of mercury from decommissioned mercury cell chlorine plants from an economic as well as environmental standpoint.
There are other options for the 12 000 to 15 000 tonne of mercury currently used in west European chlorine production: dumping in hazardous waste tips or deep well injection, but they are hardly viable. Re-use for legitimate purposes, the industry federation EuroChlor says, is the best way forward. It will help reduce atmospheric emissions to air from smelting during new mining and avoid between Euro180m ($114m) and Euro330m in additional costs to the significant Euros3.1bn conversion bill faced by industry as it moves towards membrane technology.
Forty-seven mercury cell plants, which account for about half of west European chlorine production (20m tonnes in 2001) will have to be converted over the next 20 years, although faster phase-out has been urged for years. This year 1200 tonnes of mercury is likely to be shipped to the world’s largest mercury producer, Minas de Almaden, in Spain for re-use. The company has agreed to buy surplus pure mercury from all European Union (EU) members of EuroChlor and to market it instead of new production, although it is not clear how this arrangement will work.
Europe’s chlorine producers continue to be pressured to abandon mercury cell production but the industry has for a long time maintained its stance that early mercury abandonment would do little more to protect the environment. The called-for phase-out of mercury cell plants by 2010 (The Paris Commission recommendation of more than 11 years ago), the industry believes, would not benefit the environment and would be economically damaging. EuroChlor says that producers’ mercury emissions were cut by 95% between 1997 and 1999.
EuroChlor is responding, nevertheless, to increasing pressure on its member companies to convert away from mercury cell production. The EC has just issued a report on industry conversion which European environment ministers are due to discuss in October. The industry federation, which holds its general assembly today (13 September) in The Netherlands, has broadly welcomed the report. EuroChlor executive director, Barrie Gilliatt, says it "underscores the importance of ensuring that the environment and public health is protected whilst taking into account the risk of internal market distortions and industry competitiveness on global markets".
Mercury re-use presents problems but is by far the best environmental option. Mercury trade will have to be closely monitored, and the EC recommends that existing international agreements, such as the Rotterdam Convention, be used to monitor and ensure responsible international trading in mercury for legitimate purposes. The Commission also believes that countries about to join the EU need to be encouraged to make decommissioned mercury available to replace new mercury production.
It is good to see that the industry has been able to be proactive in this respect. Companies worked hard and invested relatively heavily in the 1990s to cut emissions. As far as mercury de-commissioning is concerned, a EuroChlor delegation visited producers in central and eastern Europe earlier this year. The industry federation believes that it will be possible to come to an agreement whereby they too sell surplus mercury to Almaden. A further 2000 tonnes of mercury could be released from countries in the region expected to join the EU.
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