India Bound Mercury Shipment Turns Back to U.S.

By Neville Judd

EVANSTON, Illinois, January 30, 2001 (ENS) - Waste mercury on its way to India has been recalled to the United States by its owner amid growing protests in both countries.

The mercury is part of a 131 ton (260,000 pounds) stockpile accumulated by HoltraChem Manufacturing Co., prior to closing its plants in Orrington, Maine and Riegelwood, North Carolina last fall.

river

Until 1998, HoltraChem is estimated to have annually discharged nine pounds of mercury into the Penobscot River as the result of runoff pollution. (Photo courtesy Penobscot Riverkeepers 2000)
HoltraChem sold part of the stockpile to Evanston, Illinois based D.F. Goldsmith & Metal Corp., one of the world's largest vacuum distillers of mercury.

From Evanston via a licensed waste facility in Albany, New York, the mercury had been destined for an undisclosed buyer in India.

The southern Indian town of Kodaikanal in the Ghat foothills of Tamil Nadu is home to the world's largest clinical thermometer plant in the world. Environmentalists, including Greenpeace, have speculated that the plant, run by a subsidiary of UK company Unilever, was the likely recipient.

Environmentalists in both countries opposed the shipment, accusing the U.S. government of helping to poison the poor for profit.

Protests, together with opposition from Indian government officials convinced D.F. Goldsmith company president Don Goldsmith to recall the shipment.

"The Indian government indicated all sorts of dire consequences if we tried to land the shipment," Goldsmith told ENS.

"We thought getting it out of Maine was a great idea - now the rest of it is still languishing there. It's an ugly place to store mercury."

Goldsmith said he was surprised by the level of opposition. "These shipments have been handled routinely for decades," he said, adding that finding another buyer would not be a problem. "It won't be tomorrow but there are plenty of other customers."

Mercury is typically used in thermometers, fluorescent lamps, metal switches and batteries. HoltraChem used it in the process of producing chlorine.

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Mercury Waste Solutions Inc. runs the licensed Albany, NY waste facility, which temporarily stored the mercury. (Photo courtesy Mercury Waste Solutions Inc.)
Regardless of how it is used, when mercury is released into the environment, it can be deadly because the nervous system is highly sensitive to all forms of mercury.

Mercury does not break down, but accumulates in the fat of animals, concentrating as it moves up the food chain.

Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Short term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.

A recent study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences warned that at least 60,000 babies per year in the U.S. could be at risk of learning disabilities because their mothers have eaten mercury contaminated fish and seafood.

Many U.S. cities, states and hospitals, including Boston, San Francisco, and New Hampshire, are phasing out mercury thermometers as a first step towards eliminating the possibility of mercury leaking into the environment.

Last fall, Walmart, Kmart Corporation and Meijer's Supermarkets, announced that they would end sales of mercury thermometers.

Against the backdrop of these developments and the continued protest against the India shipment, Maine Democrat Congressman Tom Allen announced last Thursday that he will introduce legislation to phase out certain uses of mercury and provide for waste mercury to be stored and retired rather than exported to developing countries.

Under the legislation, the U.S. Defense Department would be directed to temporarily store the mercury with the 10 million pounds of mercury it already has stockpiled.

According to India Abroad News Service, the first India-bound shipment, which contained 20 tons of mercury, turned back to the U.S. off the coast of Egypt. In addition to environmental protests, Indian government officials had opposed the shipment and Indian dockworkers' unions said they would not handle the shipment.

"The protest and rejection of this shipment has made the Indian Government seriously acknowledge the extreme hazards of mercury," said Madhumita Dutta of Toxics Link India and the Basel Action Network, a global toxic trade watchdog.

children

Environmentalists claim the children of Bhopal and other Indian cities have suffered enough because of U.S. toxic dumping. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"We applaud their help in turning this shipment around. Now we must adopt trade and consumption strategies which phase out all mercury use for good."

"The people of India were absolutely justified in rejecting this toxic shipment," said Michael Belliveau, toxics project director for Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"The mercury from the Holtrachem plant has already despoiled enough of our environment in Maine. We cannot let this same toxic nightmare cause even more grief abroad," said Belliveau.

HoltraChem was fined as high as $736,000 by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection for numerous mercury contaminated spills.

In 1998, Maine passed legislation closing a legal loophole that had exempted HoltraChem from state mercury discharge standards. Thanks to a so-called grandfather clause in state statute passed in 1971, the company had been allowed to discharge mercury directly into Maine’s waters.

Prior to the new legislation, HoltraChem is estimated to have released six pounds of mercury annually through its discharge pipe directly into the Penobscot River. An additional estimated nine pounds of mercury flowed into the Penobscot as the result of runoff pollution.

Allen

U.S. Congressman Tom Allen. (Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives)
Allen's announcement last Thursday has been welcomed by a coalition of environmental groups campaigning for the U.S. to take care of its mercury problems rather than spreading toxic mercury around the world.

The coalition includes Greenpeace, Toxics Link of New Delhi, Srishti in New Delhi, All India Port and Dockworkers' Federation, Basel Action Network, Mercury Policy Project, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine People's Alliance, Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine, the Native Forest Network, Penobscot Alliance for Mercury Elimination and the Toxics Action Center.

Under Allen's bill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would develop and implement a program for long term storage to prevent use and trade of mercury.