Publication / Inside EPA
January 14, 2014
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Vitter, States Press For Mercury Storage Facility

A key Republican senator and state regulators are urging the administration to make a final decision about where to build a federal storage facility for elemental mercury to prevent environmental releases, noting that the Department of Energy is years past the statutory deadline for establishing the facility.

The 2008 Mercury Export Ban Act (MEBA), sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), directed DOE to determine the location of a long-term storage facility for mercury generated in the United States no later than Jan. 1, 2012, and establish the facility by Jan. 1, 2013. But DOE has yet to officially choose a site, despite identifying a preferred location in two environmental analyses, in part due to funding constraints.

“A full year after the facility was obligated under law to be operational, the selection of the facility site has yet to be finalized and still remains in the cumbersome federal environmental review process,” Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), the ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, wrote in a Jan. 14 letter to President Obama. “[T]he legislation’s goal was not only the export ban of this substance. If we’re not exporting mercury, we obviously need to store it somewhere,” he added.

As a senator, President Obama authored the bipartisan legislation, a point Vitter emphasized in his letter charging the administration with “selective” enforcement of laws such as the Affordable Care Act and challenging Obama to implement the mercury law.

“Despite support of your bill across both sides of the aisle, it unfortunately appears a major portion of your legislative legacy subsequently has run into a roadblock in your own administration,” Vitter wrote. “I hope you can direct the Secretary of Energy to at least attempt to implement the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, a law you yourself authored.”

State regulators also wrote to Obama administration officials Jan. 14 seeking implementation of MEBA as part of a broader agenda to reduce mercury pollution.

“With support from the Administration and Congress, the U.S. Dept. of Energy should finalize site selection and establish a national storage facility for excess mercury as required by law, and EPA should work with states to investigate the law’s impact on mercury recycling programs,” the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) and the Quicksilver Caucus wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Sally Ericsson, the association director of natural resources, energy and science at the White House Office of Management & Budget.

ECOS represents the leaders of state environmental agencies and is a part of the Quicksilver Caucus, which is a coalition of state environmental agency groups focused on reducing mercury in the environment. The letter also urges the Obama administration to move forward with plans to require installation of mercury amalgam separators in dental offices, work with states to coordinate plans for reducing mercury in waterbodies, and work with state counterparts to reduce mercury content in consumer products.

MEBA requires DOE to establish a mercury storage facility that is capable of holding 10,000 metric tons of elemental mercury over a 40-year period. There is currently no EPA-approved method of disposal for elemental mercury. The sources of elemental mercury in the United States include mercury used in the chlorine and caustic soda manufacturing process, such as by the chlor-alkali industry, reclaimed from recycling waste recovery activities and generated as a byproduct of the gold mining process. In addition, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration stores approximately 1,200 metric tons of elemental mercury at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee.

DOE in 2011 analyzed seven possible sites for the storage facility and identified one near Andrews, TX, as the preferred location. But before finalizing that option, the department in 2012 announced it was analyzing an additional two sites near DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The final supplemental environmental impact statement (FSEIS), dated Sept. 27 and announced in the Federal Register Oct. 4, includes three additional sites in the WIPP area but did not change DOE’s preferred alternative of using the Andrews, TX, location.

The FSEIS says funding constraints due to a continuing resolution in calendar year 2011 “precluded DOE from finalizing site selection” and prompted the department to reconsider several DOE sites.

The law says DOE must make a facility available to store used mercury, but producers and users of the substance do not have to use the facility if they have adequate storage elsewhere. The FSES says as of Aug. 31, seven waste management companies notified their intent to store elemental mercury at Resource Conservation & Recovery Act permitted facilities until DOE-designated elemental mercury facilities were operational and ready to accept the mercury.

The FSEIS says “DOE intends to fulfill its legal obligations, including completing the [National Environmental Policy Act] process and selecting a location for the construction and operation of a facility for the long-term management and storage of elemental mercury.”