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A Toxics-Free Future


IPENer featured in New York Times article about mercury trade

IPEN Senior Science Advisor Joe DiGangi was featured in this New York Times article:

January 2, 2014

Mercury Trade Eludes International Controls

Officials from Indonesia’s trade, environment and energy ministries did not dispute United Nations figures on mercury exports, which show imports hundreds of times as high as the country’s official tally, saying only that the information could not be considered “official” because it had not been generated by the government. But officials acknowledged that mercury smuggling was the most likely explanation, with the material legally leaving foreign countries, then entering Indonesia illegally.

“Indonesia has 17,000 islands and many ports and so many borders. It’s easy to smuggle mercury or anything else into the country,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the deputy minister of environment for hazardous substances. “I do believe there are a lot of illegal imports, but I don’t know how much.”

Mr. Rasio said he could not explain Singapore government export figures showing 291 metric tons, or more than 640,000 pounds, of mercury being sent legally to Indonesia in 2012, given that he personally signed mercury import requests. Those requests totaled less than one metric ton imported from anywhere in 2012. He added that mercury smuggling into Indonesia had not been on his ministry’s radar until recently, and within the Indonesian government “no one knows” how smuggling networks are operating.

He said the Indonesian government, National Police, Customs Department and navy recently joined the ministries of trade, environment and energy in a working group on mercury-related issues that included smuggling.

That move came just after Indonesia in October joined more than 90 other countries in signing a United Nations treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which seeks to curb mercury pollution.

“The navy and Customs Department are involved but it’s not easy — even human smuggling, you cannot stop it,” Mr. Rasio said, referring to scores of asylum seekers from South Asia and the Middle East who pay traffickers to get them into Indonesia and then onto rickety boats bound for Australia.

Of the 368 metric tons of mercury exported to Indonesia in 2012, most — 291 tons — left from docks in Singapore, which is Indonesia’s neighbor and a major mercury re-exporter. That year, according to United Nations statistics, Singapore exported a total of 478 metric tons of mercury.

Janissa Ng, a spokeswoman for International Enterprise Singapore, a bureau of that country’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, confirmed the amount of mercury that Singapore had legally exported to Indonesia in 2012.

She declined to comment on the gap between Singapore’s mercury exports to Indonesia and the Indonesian government’s official import figures, saying only that “recording of trade data might differ between countries,” and that “discrepancies in trade data could be due to time lags, valuation methods or type of goods included in data collation.”

Ronald Jansen, the chief of the United Nations Trade Statistics Branch in New York, said that his office had begun investigating the issue and would ask the Indonesian government for an explanation.

“There is a known connection between mercury and the mining of gold,” he said. “In that sense, the larger exports from Singapore to Indonesia is being used for gold mining. I don’t think that’s a very exaggerated conclusion.”

The Minamata Convention, named after the Japanese city in which industrial mercury pollution from 1932 to 1968 killed and sickened thousands, aims to protect human health and the environment from man-made emissions and releases of the element and its compounds.

The treaty, which will take effect after it is ratified by 50 signatory countries, requires that exports and re-exports of mercury be approved by the receiving country, which Mr. Rasio says will help Indonesia prevent undocumented imports.

“If we can limit the mercury illegally coming into Indonesia, the price will increase,” he said. “And when the price increases, gold dealers will look for alternatives” like cyanide or borax, which are also toxic but pose far fewer local and global health and environmental hazards.

Nonetheless, environmental groups complain that while the Minamata Convention calls for phasing out mercury for commercial uses by 2020, it allows community and small-scale mining to continue to use it to process gold, because of concerns about harming the livelihoods of millions of people.

“That means the trade of mercury for use in artisan and small-scale mining is also permitted, because you can only use mercury in uses that are allowed,” said Joe DiGangi, a science and policy adviser for the International POPs Elimination Network, which seeks to minimize and eliminate the use of so-called persistent organic pollutants. Mr. DiGangi was an observer of the United Nations negotiations on the Minamata Convention.

“So the consequence is, you have large amounts of mercury in the hands of impoverished communities that are the least capable of handling it,” he said.