The Swiss company Batrec provides remediation services for mercury or quicksilver contamination, transforming quicksilver liquid into vibrantly red and “stable” cinnabar. I met the company’s representatives and picked up the “Stabilisation of Mercury: Meeting a Global Challenge” pamphlet at the Second Conference of Parties (COP2) of the Minamata Mercury Convention which met from November 19-23, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland.
This international meeting was a five-year follow-up to the treaty signed in 2013, in Minamata, Japan. So named after the town, Minamata Disease is the benchmark for any assessment of quicksilver contamination. Between 1936-1968, the Chisso Chemical Factory’s emissions of the heavy metal contaminated Minamata Bay. Cats were the first to be seen as affected, chief consumers of fish in dumpsters. Mercury poisoning, however, has a much longer history: from “mad-hatters” who used mercury nitrate to make felt hats in the 1900s throughout the United States and Europe to its application as a “miracle cure” for syphilis in the 16th century. There are different narratives as to how mercury came onto the “global radar.” A metaphorical resonance with the Roman god Mercury as the trickster messenger as well as the god of travel and trade, the reasons behind recognizing the heavy metal as a “global pollutant” differ, depending on the teller of the tale and what kinds of monetary investments are stake. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) believes that the alarmingly high levels of contamination in the Artic region, where there are no anthropogenic sources for mercury release or emissions, jettisoned action by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Artic and the Pacific Islands have some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the world, but are not the producers of a fast moving pollutant that magnifies as it moves up species food-chain, through air, soil, and water.
In 2013, the Minamata Convention on Mercury became an international treaty in word, but not in action. Signatory countries had until August 16, 2017 to design strategic plans to reduce the emissions and release of mercury compounds. This means banning mercury from batteries, skin lightening creams, thermometers, and vaccines, it means putting air filters atop coal plants, eliminating mercury from dental amalgams and from artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
As with any international meeting, consensus building comes slowly and often behind closed doors. Countries like China and India prefer to have lower requirements for mercury emissions and spend the four years between signing to build as many coal-power plants as possible. Any energy infrastructure built before the treaty took effect does not have to comply with the new global mercury regulations. The African Delegation along with the Latin American and Caribbean delegations lobbied for tough standards on mercury emissions. On both the Latin American and African continent, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (AASGM) contribute to mercury releases. The United Nations counts AASGM as the top anthropogenic source of mercury contamination, which not only pits white collar “clean(er)” corporate mining technologies against the small-scale miners, but also serves as a rhetorical move to justify fossil fuel emissions.
My research currently occurs in artisanal gold mines in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. So much of the response to the mining and contamination depends on the administration in power. One of Batrec’s main clients is the Peruvian government. Their motto is: “We treat mercury waste with Swiss quality.” That does not mean with milk chocolate. Rather, their stabilization reagent contains sulfur, but that is all the company will say about its patented “solution.” Once the liquid mercury has switched chemical forms, it can be stored as a “stable” element as cinnabar. Where to store it then, becomes the next question.
Photograph of Batrec's informational pamphlet: "Stabilisation of Mercury: Mastering a Global Challenge." Batrec Industrie AG, Niesenstrasse 44, 3752 Wimmis, Swizterland.
Batrec Industrie AG, " Found Item: “Its Elemental: Framing Quicksilver’s Forms and Foundations”", contributed by Ruth Goldstein, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 26 November 2018, accessed 4 December 2021.