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 previous location in New York State in the US. It is a classic tactic of the chemical industry to ship plants that are too dirty or inefficient for the US or Europe to areas such as India and extend their life where environmental and safety standards are lower. Hence the industry can continue to make profits from pollution for many more years.

Moving the problem

The plant at Kodaikanal imported mercury from the US and re-exported the thermometers back to the US. Mercury is a potent toxin affecting the nervous system of people and animals and a highly dangerous pollutant. Lax safety standards at the plant left workers with mercury poisoning and large amounts of mercury contaminated waste were dumped in the surrounding areas in complete disregard for the local communities by the company.

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

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

A step in the right direction

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

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