Overnight, Australia deposited its Instrument of Ratification for the Minamata Convention on Mercury with the United Nations, officially becoming a ratified Party on 7 December 2021. The treaty will enter into force for Australia on 7 March 2022.
Australia signed the Convention in 2013 and work has been underway since that time to ratify. Many people have worked toward this goal over the years – with a range of consultation, regulation impact analyses and cost benefit analyses undertaken.
The Minamata Convention calls for reductions of emissions from products, processes and industries using, emitting or releasing mercury.
Major highlights of the Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase out of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions into air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold miners.
The Convention also deals with interim storage of mercury and its disposal once it becomes waste, sites contaminated by mercury as well as human health issues.
The ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury by Australia is a welcomed move towards addressing the impacts on human health and the environment locally, and globally, from exposure to ongoing mercury emissions and legacy mercury contamination.
Nationally, there are any number of sites and catchments around Australia that have been contaminated by mercury due to our reliance on coal power generation, historical gold mining, Chlor Alkali plants to name a few.
The three Latrobe Valley power stations are noted for high airborne mercury emission concentrations due to poor regulatory management and ineffectual pollution control in Victoria.
Although Australian coal is considered to have low mercury content, the mercury emissions provided in the National Pollutant Inventory, and the poor energy efficiency of brown coal, requiring more coal to be burnt per kWh produced, means the Latrobe Valley produces significant mercury emissions.
Further, the absence of mercury removal in Australia through air pollution control means that most of the mercury in the coal used in the Australian electricity production is released to the atmosphere.
The Latrobe Valley power stations constituted between 45% and 63% of Australia’s mercury emissions from electricity generation, with 1,513 kg emitted in the period 2015–2016.
In the atmosphere, mercury can be transported over short and long distances by the wind or with migrating birds.
In the aquatic environment, mercury binds to organic particles and settles out in sediments; only relatively small amounts of mercury dissolve in the water column.
All humans are exposed to some level of mercury, with children in the stages of foetal development being the most susceptible during development, adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system.
The primary health effect of mercury is impaired neurological development. Therefore, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills may be affected in children who were exposed to mercury as foetuses.
State legislature on mercury pollution-control strategies differ from state to state with Victoria being highly unregulated. But the ratification of the Minamata Convention presents an opportunity to nationalise regulatory standards of air pollution and address legacy contamination.
Ratification would have Australia moving in line with the global push to address mercury pollution giving impetus to those states who have yet to invest in mercury remediation and create an opportunity to create legislation and policies to ensure implementation of Convention obligations.
Aligning Convention global standards of best practice management for mercury emissions, remediation would provide greater regulatory and compliance opportunities that currently do not exist in Australia.