Bon Voyage

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Feature story - 23 May, 2003
A container ship currently heading from southern India to the US represents a small victory in the fight against corporate crime across the globe. The ship is carrying 320 tonnes of toxic mercury contaminated waste which comes from a closed plant owned by the Indian subsidiary of consumer products giant Unilever.

Unilever agrees to clean up its toxic mercury mess in south India.

The Unilever mercury thermometer production plant was set up in TamilNadu, India in 1983 after being shipped wholesale from it previouslocation in New York State in the US. It is a classic tactic of thechemical industry to ship plants that are too dirty or inefficient forthe US or Europe to areas such as India and extend their life whereenvironmental and safety standards are lower. Hence the industry cancontinue to make profits from pollution for many more years.

Moving the problem

The plant at Kodaikanal imported mercury from the US and re-exportedthe thermometers back to the US. Mercury is a potent toxin affectingthe nervous system of people and animals and a highly dangerouspollutant. Lax safety standards at the plant left workers with mercurypoisoning and large amounts of mercury contaminated waste were dumpedin the surrounding areas in complete disregard for the localcommunities by the company.

Local environmental groups and Greenpeace first exposed the mercurydumping scandal in May 2001. Subsequent protests by locals forced theclosure of the plant but the contaminated waste was left littering thesite and surrounding area. Investigations by the pollution controlauthorities revealed the pollution to be far worse than the company hadadmitted with soil contamination 600-800 the legal levels andapproximately 17 times more mercury was unaccounted for than thecompany estimates. The authorities ordered the company to clean up thesite and safely treat the waste.

Ananthapadmanabhan, one of our campaigners in India, is studying theclean up: "We will be keeping a close watch on all future remedialactions by the company. Several thousand tonnes of toxic wastes andcontaminated soil are still to be properly identified and contained.Now that the clean up has begun in earnest, compensation and healthcare for affected ex-workers should be immediately brought on to theagenda."

A step in the right direction

The waste will be treated at a special plant in the US. The start ofthe clean up is a big victory for campaigners in India where otherpolluted hotspots cause by irresponsible companies, like Bhopal, abound.


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