WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate has approved legislation that is designed to safeguard the continued safety and integrity of Alaska’s seafood, according to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Republican co-sponsor of the bill.

The Senate late Friday unanimously approved a ban on the export of elemental mercury, a neurotoxin that can harm fetuses and young children, if it continues to accumulate in the environment.


The Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, would prohibit the export of elemental mercury from the United States starting in 2013 in order to reduce its frequently uncontrolled use in developing nations. The European Union has already taken similar steps to ban the export of mercury.


To aid businesses holding stockpiles of mercury in excess of that needed for domestic uses, the legislation would establish a federal mercury storage reserve that would relieve firms of the liability of storage of the metal in the future and help keep it from leaking into the air and groundwater.


The bill also would prohibit the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy from selling their huge stockpiles of mercury to keep from adding to the mercury glut on national and world markets.


“Given our expanding knowledge about the health impacts of elemental mercury when it enters the atmosphere, this is a common-sense approach to slow needless mercury emissions, especially in the developing world,” said Murkowski. “Coming from a state that is a major seafood producer, it only makes sense to take reasonable steps now to safeguard the environment from the unnecessary release of mercury that can affect fish and potentially those who eat fish.


“We’ve never had a real problem with mercury contamination in Alaska’s seafood and this ban on exports to slow the introduction of mercury from Third World nations into the atmosphere can help maintain our excellent safety record.”


Murkowski noted that the ban on mercury exports is not a ban on the production of mercury should it be produced as part of mining operations in the United States. While there are no mercury mines left in Alaska, mercury sometimes is produced as a by-product of gold or other mining, and that mercury can be sold for valid domestic purposes. While its use in the making of chlorine gas (chlor-alkali plant use) is being phased out in this country, it is still used in some electric switches, in some thermometers, in some dental fillings, and as a catalyst in industrial activities – none currently conducted in Alaska.


The ban on exports is designed to curb the shipment of mercury to developing nations. There it can be burned in industrial purposes or as a low-cost means of placer gold recovery, releasing it into the atmosphere where it can eventually contaminate U.S. lakes, rivers and ocean currents.  Mercury in water can then bioaccumulate in fish, becoming more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, eventually harming developing fetuses and young children.


Murkowski said the ban should have no negative effects on Alaska industry, but could well aid seafood in the future by markedly slowing the release of mercury where it can affect future seafood harvests. Already in recent years there have been warnings to discourage pregnant women and children from eating some seafood products because of the fear of mercury contamination.


“We in Alaska don’t have a problem with mercury in our seafood, and this bill will help to keep it that way,” said Murkowski.


Under the revised bill (S. 906), which was originally sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, and co-sponsored by Murkowski, U.S. producers of mercury could apply for essential use exemptions if the mercury is needed in a foreign nation. The bill also would require a study by EPA that looks at the impact of the legislation on mercury recycling efforts, should the bill in any way begin to harm recycling efforts.


The revised bill has yet to pass the U.S. House of Representatives.