23 September 2002 00:00 [Source: ICB Americas]European chlorine producers hope that next month European Union (EU) governments will back a chloralkali industry plan for the safe disposal of mercury used in mercury cell plants. The move is expected to ease environmental pressures on the industry.
In early October, environmental ministers from the EU's 15 member states are scheduled to consider a report from the European Commission on several options for disposing of surplus mercury as the EU's mercury cell plants are phased out. Mercury cell plants account for a large proportion of EU chlorine production.
The industry says that the best arrangement it has reached is a deal with Minas de Almaden of Spain, the world's largest dedicated mercury mining company. Minas de Almaden has agreed to buy the surplus pure mercury from the EU's chlorine producers as it becomes available following the transfer of mercury plants to the membrane process.
By the end of this year, around 1,300 tons of mercury, out of the 12,000 to 15,000 tons covered by the agreement, are expected to have been shipped to Minas de Almaden. The Spanish company plans to use the excess mercury to replace its own output.
"This is the most practical and sensible solution," says a spokesman for Euro Chlor, the federation of 85 chloralkali companies. "It is not only the safest option for the environment, it also should satisfy the regulators.
"The industry is now only a minor contributor to the total losses of mercury into the environment," he adds. "Over the last 20 years, it has reduced mercury emissions by 96 percent."
At present, Western Europe has 47 mercury cell plants, which Euro Chlor expects to be converted during the next two decades. Environmentalists, however, want the mercury process to be phased out in a much shorter period.
The convention for the protection of the marine environment in the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR) has demanded that mercury cell production of chlorine should cease by 2010, but this stipulation does not have any legal force.
Euro Chlor says the key legislation on the future of the process is the EU's integrated pollution prevention and collection directive, which allows individual governments to set their own deadlines for the withdrawal of the technology.
"Under these regulations, governments can take into account local economic and social conditions, as long as they ensure that precautions are taken to minimize mercury losses to the environment," says the Euro Chlor spokesman.
The conversion of Western Europe's mercury cell plants with an annual capacity of around 6 million metric tons will cost an estimated 3 billion ($2.9 billion), according to Euro Chlor.
Leading chloralkali companies such as Bayer, Akzo Nobel and Solvay have already started or completed the switch from the mercury process.
But the need for conversion, with its relatively high investment costs, is presenting a dilemma to companies that want to withdraw from chlorine production or are uncertain about their commitment to the chloralkali sector.
ENI and Norsk Hydro want to pull out of the chloralkali business, and a number of players with small plants have been delaying decisions.
Atofina has recently been criticized by trade unions in France because it has apparently not yet allocated investment funds to cover conversion costs.
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