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India to send back waste to US

New Delhi, April 16 (PTI): In the first ever case of “reverse dumping”, 1,416 drums filled with 290 tonnes of hazardous mercury wastes from a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, are being sent back to the US.

The waste transfer marks the end of a long struggle by residents and environment activists led by Greenpeace India.

They had alleged that mercury vapours released from the factory owned by Hindustan Lever Ltd — a subsidiary of the multinational Unilever — ruined the health of the workers and local people and caused lasting damage to the environment during its 18 years of operation.

Hindustan Lever has arranged to ship the hazardous mercury and related wastes from the now defunct factory back to the US.

The consignment, including finished and unfinished products and sludge, is leaving Tuticorin port tomorrow aboard the ship Indmax Dalian. The shipment is headed for the hazardous waste recycling firm, Bethlehem Apparatus, in Pennsylvania, a Greenpeace official said.

The controversial thermometer factory was relocated to India in 1983 after it was shut down in Watertown, New York. The factory imported all its mercury mainly from the US, and finished thermometers were exported back to America for distribution to markets abroad.

Environment groups had alleged that the factory had been responsible for considerable mercury contamination over the last 18 years. Contamination levels outside the factory were measured at 600-800 times the permissible limit but Hindustan Lever had been denying this figure.

On March 7, 2001, Greenpeace and a local environment group — Palani Hills Conservation Council — exposed mercury-bearing waste glass dumped by the company at a local scrap yard. Demonstrations by residents at the factory site forced its closure by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

The board discovered that 10 tonnes of mercury were unaccounted for and have been lost to the environment in addition to the amount of 559 kg the company had admitted. It also found that factory workers were exposed to unacceptable mercury vapour levels which led to bleeding gums, skin patches and eye irritations.

Mercury from the factory also adversely affected the tropical forest of the Pambar Shola where it is located and contaminated the nearby Kodi lake causing wide ranging environmental effects.

Hindustan Lever’s decision to send the wastes back to the US is a sequel to the two days of public hearings and site visits in September 2002 by the Indian Peoples’ Tribunal under the chairmanship of Justice S.N. Bhargav.

The tribunal confirmed that mercury pollution by the factory posed a threat to health of workers and ecology of the forest.

Mercury waste is covered under the Basel convention of 1999 which addresses the problem of dumping of hazardous wastes in developing nations by companies in developed countries.

The Kodai waste is being exported under the rules of the convention that allows such export if the country does not have the capability of managing or disposing of the perilous waste in a manner that is environmentally sound.

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