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Public Statements

Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



By Mr. OBAMA (for himself and Ms. Murkowski):

S. 906. A bill to prohibit the sale, distribution, transfer, and export of elemental mercury, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I am pleased to be joined today by my esteemed colleague from Alaska, Ms. Murkowski, in introducing the Mercury Market Minimization Act of 2007.

As most of us in this Chamber know, elemental mercury is a poisonous neurotoxin that can cause serious disability or death if ingested. Unfortunately, many people in the United States, and many millions more worldwide, do indeed ingest mercury--unintentionally, however, as a result of industrial emissions or practices, or poor waste management and storage techniques. When mercury enters into the environment, it often shows up in plants and animals, and that means a major source of mercury ingestion for humans comes as a result of eating certain types of fish. That, in turn, causes serious developmental problems in half a million children in our country, and similar health problems in adults, especially women at childbearing age.

Last year, an investigative report published in the Chicago Tribune outlined the extent of mercury contamination in fish. After concluding that the fish sampling efforts conducted by the Federal Government were limited and outdated, the Tribune conducted its own sampling, and the results showed surprisingly high levels of mercury concentrations in freshwater and saltwater fish purchased by consumers in the Chicago region--higher levels than had been documented by the Federal Government. Mercury was found in both freshwater and saltwater species--tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, and walleye, to name a few examples. The Tribune also reported on how existing programs at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have failed to adequately test and evaluate mercury levels in fish.

For those of us who like fish, it causes us to pause when we first learn of the range of species with high mercury levels. For pregnant women and other at-risk groups, however, this doesn't just cause pause, it creates serious concerns about health consequences. Meanwhile, experts tell us that fish is an excellent source of critical nutrients and other compounds indispensable for good health. More of us should eat more fish.

So the real long-term solution is not to eat less fish, or to criticize those who commercially provide us with fish as food. It's not about issuing advisories, or printing labels on tuna cans, or posting placards at the supermarket, or creating inspection bureaucracies, or collecting statistics. If we're serious about eliminating mercury from fish, we need to reduce mercury in the environment.

Half of mercury settles where it is emitted, and the other half gets transported around the globe where we lose track of it, and it winds up in oceans, lakes, and rivers nowhere near mercury sources. From there, up it goes, through the food chain. If mercury is both local, and global, then the solution is not up to one state, or one nation, but up to all states and nations. The bill we introduce today was crafted based on that premise.

The Mercury Market Minimization Act, or M3 Act, establishes a ban on U.S. exports of mercury by the year 2010. Such a ban, when coupled with goal of the European Union to ban mercury exports by 2011, and the insufficient capacity in the world's mercury mines to respond, will result in a tightening of the global supply of commercially available elemental mercury in sufficient quantities that developing nations that still use mercury will be compelled to switch to the affordable alternatives that are already widespread in industrialized nations.

The M3 Act also requires those Federal agencies that now hold mercury in stockpiles to keep that mercury. Right now, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, possess tons of mercury left over from various operations over the years. While it is the policy of these agencies to keep this mercury--not to sell it, not to transfer it, not to release it from their possession--it is not the law. The M3 act codifies these policies. In December of 2006, it was widely understood that the Department of Energy was considering the sale of its mercury stockpiles. After various inquiries into the matter, the Department of Energy ultimately announced that it would not sell its stockpiles. That underscores why a prohibition of stockpile sales must be enacted into law by the M3 act if we are to be assured that mercury remains safely stored, away from the environment, and not sold overseas to places where tracking and emissions and waste disposal laws may be inadequate.

Finally, the M3 Act calls for the creation of a committee to explore and make recommendations on the issues associated with the development of a permanent repository of mercury collected as a result of an export prohibition. Mercury is not like spent nuclear fuel, or other substances that may create community concerns, in that when mercury is stored in stainless steel containers in refrigeration, it remains benign. Every community must be provided the opportunity to evaluate for themselves if and when mercury is stored nearby in secure and stable storage. I do believe, however, that when mercury is safely and permanently stored, it means less microscopic mercury on one's dinner plate, less mercury in our kids' tuna fish sandwiches, and less mercury in the air we breathe.

Last month, a United States delegation, led by the State Department, participated in an international meeting in Kenya, sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Programme, where world representative discussed how to reduce mercury pollution. Two years ago, the U.S. Government could have taken a bolder stance, and did not. This time, with the decision of the E.U. to ban mercury exports, the United States had an opportunity to partner with its allies to eliminate a major part of worldwide elemental mercury contamination. Again, the State Department did not.

It is not often that policy options, such as this, might be considered ``low-hanging fruit''--in that a small act of international leadership by the United States government could have far reaching benefits for the health of our kids, as well as millions of low-income hardworking artisanal gold miners whom we will never meet. But the United States, so far, has not acted. This bill, the M3 bill, is designed to change that course and the mark the beginning of the end of a global market of an outdated and obsolete poison. I hope my colleagues will support this bill, and I ask unanimous consent that a copy of this legislation be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record


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