Indian citizen action groups Toxics Link and Basel Action Network are publicising the proposal in parallel with Greenpeace in the US.

The mercury waste originated with a chlorine-caustic manufacturer in Maine, US, called HoltraChem. The waste was purchased by traders DF Goldsmith and Metal Corp, and the pressure groups are claiming the company intends to ship it to a secret location in India.

According to the Basel Action Network, the Governor of Maine approached the US Government to prevent the export following protests by local NGOs. He urged that the waste be added to the existing stockpile of used mercury held by the US Department of Defense, because Maine has no appropriate storage facilities.

But, it is claimed, the US Government has refused to accept the mercury, saying it does not have the authority to do so.

“The United States government is complicit in this act of poisoning the poor for profit,” said Lisa Finaldi, Greenpeace USA’s toxics campaigner. “It is deplorable that we are preparing to send to India a highly toxic substance that we do not want to live with in the United States. Even as we phase out this toxic metal from our products and lives in the United States, we shamelessly export it to industrialising countries knowing fully well the magnitude of damage to human lives and environment it can cause in these countries.”

“While the Basel convention would not allow the export of haz. material from OECD to non OECD countries, however the US has not signed the treaty,” Finaldi told edie. “Also, the material is not considered a waste but rather a product. Basel defines waste by destination (Annex IV of the treaty) which includes for example landfills, recycling, reclamation facilities etcetera.”

“We are still investigating when the mercury will leave and whether or not India is the definitive destination,” Finaldi added.

The wrath of the green campaigners focuses on the role of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), an intergovernmental organisation under the United Nations whose mission is to assist less industrialised nations to progress sustainably.

Unfortunately, because it has a strong focus on trade, green organisations accuse UNCTAD of being steered by corporate interests, criticising in particular its role in promoting the dumping of hazardous wastes from industrialised nations onto the shores of poorer countries.

For decades, less industrialised countries in Asia, Africa and South America were used as a final resting place for toxic wastes from developed countries, a practice that had serious effects on the local environment and population.

In recognition of the dangers of the trade, the international community led by the G-77 countries and China, succeeded in strengthening the Basel Convention on the Control and Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. In 1994, this group secured a ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the affluent, industrialised countries of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to the developing non-OECD nations.

This decision, known as the Basel Ban, was hailed as a victory for the environment and international justice. But since the Basel Ban, UNCTAD has been used as a gateway by a powerful minority of industries and industrial nations – Greenpeace specifically accuses the US, Canada, Australia and Japan – who seek to maintain the trade in toxins.

Greenpeace notes that UNCTAD has issued a series of case studies, research projects and papers, under the auspices of the United Nations, claiming that the Basel Ban is an unjustified trade barrier that hurts the environment and the economy.

Meanwhile, moves to ban mercury thermometers are gathering pace in the US as a first step in eliminating mercury releases to the environment – Boston, San Francisco and the state of New Hampshire have all outlawed the thermometers, and leading retailers including Wal Mart and K Mart have announced they will also stop selling them.

“Likewise in India, this import can pre-empt fledgling attempts by Indian groups to frame rules to handle existing mercury contamination and to find alternatives to mercury,” said Basel Action Network spokesperson Ravi Agarwal in New Delhi.

Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, and Toxics Link have highlighted numerous instances of toxic trade, of hazardous waste dumping and the export of dirty, obsolete products or technologies by industrialised countries into India. India seems to be a preferred dumping ground for the West.

The activist groups have raised the matter with the US Embassy and the Government of India, and have alerted the trade unions, including the dock workers unions. The groups have also expressed their appreciation to the US citizens groups and the Maine Governor, Angus King, for their efforts to sensitise the US Government on this latest instance of ‘toxic trade’.

“We have had enough of this “take-this” US imperialism, where unwanted and dangerous substances, technologies and wastes are routinely dumped on industrialising countries,” said Madhumita Dutta, an activist with New Delhi-based Toxics Link. “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.”

“We are a group of people working together for environmental justice and freedom from toxics,” Dutta told edie. “We have taken upon ourselves to collect and share both information about the sources and dangers of poisons in our environment and bodies, and information about clean and sustainable alternatives for India and the rest of the world.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie