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Industry moves to weaken model mercury restriction
By Steven Stycos

Led by the electric light industry, business is pushing to weaken Rhode Island’s model law to reduce toxic mercury emissions. Computer chip manufacturers, the movie industry, and battery-maker Duracell want the upcoming ban on the sale or manufacture of items containing high-mercury repealed. Insisting that business concerns are exaggerated, environmentalists defend the law and seek new measures to force the auto industry to pay to remove mercury switches from old cars.

At a hearing last month, Marcella Thompson, principal safety engineer for ON Semiconductor in East Greenwich, said her company would have to move out of state if the law’s phased-in restrictions are not delayed. No alternative exists for the high-intensity mercury lamps ON uses to make computer chips, she stated. Citing the movie industry’s need for high-intensity lamps, an industry lobbyist made a similar warning.

But lobbyists from Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and Beverly Migliore, supervising environmental scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, say the current law already allows businesses to seek exemptions. "That was smoke and mirrors," says Migliore, DEM’s top mercury regulator, of industry’s dire predictions. "We’re not saying Rhode Island companies can’t buy stuff," she explains. "We’re saying they can’t make stuff." And restricting sales and manufacture of mercury products, she says, pushes industry to invent alternative mercury-free processes.

Two legislators with strong environmental credentials voice sympathy, however, for industry’s plight. "We may have gone too far," stated state Senator Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) at the hearing. Meanwhile, Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee chairwoman Susan Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown) has sponsored a bill that would stop Rhode Island’s mercury phase-out from beginning until a third of Northeast states enact similar laws. House hearings are expected soon.

In 2001, the legislature passed model legislation to reduce mercury in Rhode Island. When released into the environment, elemental mercury can be transformed by biological processes into Methylmercury, a toxin that accumulates in fish. If ingested by people, it can disrupt the human nervous system. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, pregnant and nursing women and pre-school children should not eat swordfish, shark, or any fish caught in Rhode Island freshwater due to mercury.

The 2001 law bans sale or manufacture of items with large amounts of mercury starting July 13, 2003, and smaller items over the next few years. The items could still be purchased from out-of-state companies. But industry lobbyists claim the mercury problem has been largely solved. Restrictions, especially those involving button batteries and lighting, they testified, would hurt industry and provide minimal protection for the environment. According to the Virginia-based National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the law would ban sales of some versions of the video system Play Station and fast food novelty items that contain non-removable mercury button batteries.

But Migliore says substitutes exist for many items, and others, like McDonald’s toys, are hardly essential to the state’s economy. To help industry, DEM would support lengthening the exemption period from two to four or five years, lobbyist Elizabeth Stone stated at the hearing. Meanwhile, environmentalists want to force automakers to pay metals recyclers to remove mercury trunk and hood switches from junk cars. Automakers used mercury switches as late as 2001, says Sheila Dormody, director of the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action, and cars containing approximately 1800 pounds of mercury continue to drive around the state.

Issue Date: May 23 - 29, 2003
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