In what environmentalists regard as a first-of-its-kind operation, a cargo ship has sailed for the U.S with waste mercury products that will be reprocessed in a factory in Pennsylvania.
Greenpeace activists said the Indamex Chesapeake sailed from the southern port of Tuticorin with 1,416 drums of toxic waste from a mercury thermometer factory belonging to Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), the Indian subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch MNC Unilever.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had shut down the factory, located in the scenic holiday resort of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, in 2001 following complaints by the local community, factory workers and several NGOs that it was polluting the environment with mercury poisoning.
The story began in 1983 when the U.S.-based Chesebrough Ponds Ltd. bought and relocated a thermometer-making factory from the New York suburb of Watertown to Kodaikanal.
In 1987, Ponds was bought by Unilever and the Kodaikanal thermometer factory became its biggest such facility in the world. HLL then became the new owner of the plant.
HLL would import the glass and mercury required for making thermometers, which were then exported to Britain, the U.S., Australia, Germany, Spain and other countries.
In March 2001, local communities and factory workers' unions complained of unsafe waste disposal methods. Some 400 people marched in protest to demand the waste be removed from the tourist town.
Activists said the mercury waste was destroying the ecologically fragile hill area, known as the Shola ecosystem of the Western Ghats.
Environmentalists pointed to dumping grounds and scrap yards all over the town where broken glass tinged with mercury lay scattered in heaps.
Scrap dealers like Ramesh Thiraviyan, in whose yard mercury scrap was found, said HLL had not told him it was poisonous.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered an investigation and HLL finally admitted it had dumped mercury-tainted glass in the Kodaikanal neighbourhood.
Activists claimed nearly 40 tonnes of crushed glass tinged with mercury had been disposed of to scrap merchants throughout the state. HLL said the figure was less than ten tonnes.
Even as the controversy raged, the government ordered HLL on June 21, 2001, to close the factory. However, the row over compensation for workers poisoned by the mercury for 17 years and the damage of the ecosystem continues to be unresolved.
The good news, however, is that the waste is now being shipped to the US - a rare instance of concerted action against an MNC in India going in favour of the community.