US extends criminal investigation of mercury exporter

In a last minute move, the US Attorney in Newark, New Jersey extended a criminal investigation of illegal exports of mercury-bearing waste by Louisiana-based Borden Chemicals and Plastics to Thor Chemicals in South Africa.

The statute of limitations on the case was set to expire on January 27, but Assistant US Attorney Mary Ellen Dugan obtained a two-week extension, leaving the door open to continue the criminal case against Borden.

Environmental groups in the US and South Africa, who made last minute appeals to keep the case alive, greeted the news with cautious optimism. “In the next two weeks the US has an opportunity to force Borden to clean up the mess they made in South Africa,” said Heeten Kalan, Director of the South Africa Exchange Program on Environmental Justice.

From 1991 to 1994, Borden allegedly shipped over 2,500 drums of mercury-bearing waste to the Thor Chemicals plant in Cato Ridge, South Africa, for ‘recycling,’ but the waste remains stockpiled and the barrels are, according to Greenpeace USA, leaking contaminants.

Mercury contamination of workers as well as the environment surrounding the plant has been the focus of several criminal and civil investigations.

In an April 1998 court settlement in a civil case, filed in Louisiana, Borden agreed to a $7 million settlement for cleaning up soil and water contamination in Louisiana. While the initial action filed included the illegal shipments to South Africa, the final settlement makes no mention of this charge.

“This criminal case is our best chance to get those who generated and exported this toxic waste to take responsibility for it,” said Kenny Bruno, a toxics specialist with Greenpeace. “The U.S. Attorney’s action gives hope that we can still avoid a mercury contamination disaster in South Africa.”

“The mercury waste should be properly contained, cleaned up and not burned so as to not further expose South Africans or their environment,” said Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project. “Burning mercury waste in South Africa will contribute to higher mercury levels world-wide, including in the United States. One-third of the mercury contamination here in the US comes from outside the country.”

Greenpeace says Borden failed to notify the EPA of the exports, as required under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act. The last mercury waste shipment from Borden, allegedly left Newark on January 28, 1994 on board the Agulhas.

That shipment was recalled by Borden after Greenpeace wrote to the company. It was seized by US Customs and became the focus of the criminal case pursued by the US Attorney in Newark.

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