BANGOR, Maine -- Maine's worst mercury polluter is proving to be as controversial in liquidation as when the company was manufacturing caustic soda and chlorine from its Orrington plant on the Penobscot River.
HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. closed its plants in Orrington, Maine and Riegelwood, North Carolina last fall, citing rising costs and declining product prices. It was not helped by fines as high as $736,000 imposed by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection for numerous mercury contaminated spills.
Among the more pressing issues raised by liquidation was what to do with the 131 tons (260,000 pounds) of mercury HoltraChem had accumulated in the process of producing chlorine since taking over the plant in 1994.
The answer appears to have surfaced in the southern Indian town of Kodaikanal.
Kodaikanal is a popular tourist destination in the Ghat foothills in Tamil Nadu. It is also home to the largest clinical thermometer plant in the world.
Mercury is typically used in thermometers, fluroscent lamps, metal switches and batteries. When released into the environment, it can be deadly since 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.
With the U.S. market for reprocessed mercury looking so poor, HoltraChem sold its 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, NY, the mercury is destined for India. According to Greenpeace toxics campaigner Lisa Finaldi, about half of the mercury was shipped to India on December 14.
A spokesman for Mercury Waste Solutions Inc., which runs the Albany plant, would only confirm that it had received two shipments of HoltraChem mercury, totalling 30,000 to 40,000 pounds, and that one of those shipments had since left the plant for an undisclosed location.
Greenpeace has united with U.S. and Indian environmental groups to oppose the shipment of any more mercury between the two countries.
"It's a moral question," Finaldi told ENS. "Mercury's use is being outlawed in the U.S. for health reasons, many hospitals no longer allow mercury thermometers and digital thermometers are taking over," said Finaldi.
"So shipping a toxic product that's fast becoming obsolete to a mercury factory in India, which has little or no environmental enforcement, raises concerns."
In an earlier statement, Finaldi accused the U.S. government of being "complicit in this act of poisoning the poor for profit."
"Even as we phase out this toxic metal from our products and lives in the United States, we shamelessly export it to industrializing countries knowing fully well the magnitude of damage to human lives and environment it can cause in these countries."
Maine Governor Angus King asked the U.S. Department of Defense to add the mercury to stockpiles the agency maintains, rather than allow it to be exported. The department said federal law stipulates it can only stockpile mercury it owns.
Ravi Agarwal of the Basel Action Network in New Dehli said such shipments hinder fledgling attempts by Indian groups to frame rules to handle existing mercury contamination and to find alternatives to mercury.
Madhumita Dutta, an activist with New Delhi based Toxics Link, went further.
"We have had enough of this 'take this' U.S. imperialism, where unwanted and dangerous substances, technologies and wastes are routinely dumped on industrializing countries," said Dutta.
"India must refuse the import of this horribly toxic and persistent poison, and instead begin to work on policies that phase out our own use of the toxic metal at home."
The final destination for the mercury has not been disclosed and ENS calls to D.F. Goldsmith president Don Goldsmith were not returned. Environmentalists believe a Unilever subsidiary's plant in Kodaikanal is the likely recipient.
Here, Pond's India, a subsidiary of U.S. consumer products congolomerate Cheseborough Ponds, itself a subsidiary of the United Kingdom's Unilever, operates the largest clinical thermometer plant in the world.
According to a 1997 article in Indian newspaper The Hindu, the Kodaikanal plant produces 35 percent of the thermometers sold in the United States. Figures from the International Trade
Administration show that India is the largest recipient of mercury exports from the United States.
Campaigners appear to be making headway judging by the comments of Indrani Chandrasekhar of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Chandrasekhar told InterPress Service that India would not allow the mercury to be imported.
"We have alerted the customs and port authorities and asked them to seize this illegal consignment," Chandrasekhar told the news service. "It is the responsibility of the United States to stop it."
According to New Delhi based Toxics Link, Indian stevedore unions have pledged their support and say they will not handle the mercury shipment. Finaldi said Greenpeace is in the process of asking U.S. stevedore unions to make the same commitment.
Back in Orrington, ME, HoltraChem's problems continue. Its cleanup and closure plan has been rejected by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP).
"There were deficiencies in the plan," MDEP's eastern regional director Edward Logue told ENS. Logue added that fully closing the plant would mean working with HoltraChem and former owner Mallinckrodt Inc. as a responsible party.
A 1997 Board of Environmental Protection order against HoltraChem cited more than a dozen discharges and spill incidents, including:
- the discharge of corrosive, caustic soda, above hazardous waste limits, into the Penobscot River over a week in January 1997;
- a leak of more than 30,000 gallons of mercury contaminated brine from a tank into the ground over the course of a 13-day period;
- a leak of 1,000 gallons of mercury contaminated brine from a tank onto the ground and into the Penobscot River in May 1997;
- the discharge of 65,000 gallons of mercury contaminated waste water from the wastewater treatment facility to the Penobscot in August 1995.
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 Maines 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. An additional estimated nine pounds of mercury flowed into the Penobscot as the result of runoff pollution.