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India Turns Away Ship With Cargo of U.S. Mercury

by Danielle Knight

Viewed as dumping toxics on a Third World country
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- A cargo ship bound for India carrying mercury from the United States has been rejected by Bombay and is now being returned to sender, according to an official here.

A State Department official, who did not want to be identified, said today that the government of India has rejected the shipment and the mercury is now on its way to the United States after having possibly made it all the way to Port Said in Egypt.

While the final destination of the toxic chemical is unknown, authorities in the two countries remain in disagreement over the legality of freighting the toxic chemical without India's consent.

The shipment was part of a large stockpile of mercury that was left when a chemical plant in Maine closed down. Environmentalists in India and the United States have been trying to halt the transport of the mercury. They viewed the shipment as a wealthy nation dumping a toxic substance on a developing nation that does not have well-enforced environmental regulations.

Despite calls several months ago to have the chemical stored safely at a U.S. government facility, the mercury had been sold to an Illinois-based company, D.F. Goldsmith. The corporation then reportedly resold some of the mercury to Indian factories that use the metal to make thermometers and other products.

Earlier this month, an official with the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi told reporters that the shipment was illegal. She said customs and port authorities had been alerted and the shipment would be seized if it ever came to India.

Dock workers in Bombay, according to press reports in India, feared handling the substance and refused to unload it.

Legal questions about definition of hazardous waste
Mercury has been linked to a host of neurological problems. Long-term exposure can result in symptoms that can lead to personality changes and even coma.

Helen Duteau, a spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that shipping the mercury to India is not illegal because it is considered a commodity, not a hazardous waste, under international and national law.

"It's the EPA's understanding that this (shipment) is not considered a hazardous waste," she said.

The shipment, therefore, does not fall under U.S. regulations that require consent from the country importing the waste, she said.

An official with the State Department said he did not understand India's legal ground for rejecting the shipment since he said Indian law did not prohibit mercury imports for commercial use.

The cargo was shipped by a Los Angeles-based company, Air Sea Forwarders, Inc. Serge Bernard, a district manager with the company in Chicago, told IPS that the shipment was completely legal. He would not say where the shipment was or where it was headed, explaining that divulging such information would violate the contract he had with his clients.

Bernard said he did not know anything about the mercury being returned to the United States and called statements that the mercury had been in Egypt "misguided rumors."

Environmentalists applauded the Indian government's rejection of the shipment.

"It is time for the United States to stop exporting toxic materials and to start exporting clean technologies," said Michael Bender, executive director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, which has been closely following the issue. "This mercury should be taken out of circulation for good," he added.

Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental organization, said there is a strong case that the shipment was illegal under the Basel Convention, the international treaty that regulates international trade of this kind of materials.

"The recent statements by the State Department and by the EPA that the waste shipment is perfectly legal," he said, "must be questioned."

The Convention defines waste as material intended for any recycling or recovery operations, according to Puckett. Therefore, if the mercury needs refining before being used, as may be the case with the shipment to India, it can be considered a hazardous waste, he argued.

The treaty also defines hazardous waste as a substance that is considered by a party involved in a transaction to be hazardous waste. It is uncertain whether India strictly defines the mercury as a hazardous waste.

While the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention, India is a party. According to the treaty, parties cannot trade in hazardous waste with a non-party.

So if India does consider the mercury to be hazardous waste and India and the United States do not have a special bilateral agreement on waste then the shipment would be illegal according to the Convention, said Puckett.

Environmentalists have urged the U.S. Department of Defense to store the mercury at one of its national stockpiles. U.S. law permits the military to store toxic or hazardous waste that it does not own when essential to protect the public from imminent danger.

In a letter sent to the Pentagon last week, more than 160 environmental advocates in the United States and India argued that the scientific data "clearly demonstrates" the threat the chemical poses to human health.

They pointed to a recent study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences which warned that at least 60,000 babies each year in the United States could be at risk for lower IQ and learning disabilities because their mothers have eaten mercury-contaminated seafood.

Environmentalists argued that the metal is a global pollutant because it does not break down and travels around the world carried by wind and rain.

"Congress needs to act to lock up leftover industrial mercury, not let it be sold abroad," said Michael Belliveau, toxics project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an advocacy group.

"U.S. government leadership is needed to keep mercury from poisoning the global environment," he said.

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Albion Monitor January 29, 2001 (

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