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Lessons from Mercury

Tuesday, January 30, 2001



As the movement to ban the sale of mercury thermometers in Maine and throughout the nation gains momentum, it is worth noting that this is not merely a story of how obsolete and harmful products from time to time get shoved from the marketplace by new, safer versions. With tons of this powerful poison dumped in American landfills each year from just that one source, despite those new, safer versions having been readily available for years, it is also an important lesson in how the small and seemingly inconsequential choices made by millions of individuals can add up to an enormous problem for society.

Similarly, the story of India turning away that freighter carrying 18 tons of waste mercury from the United States (specifically, from the closed HoltraChem plant in Orrington) is not just about a business deal gone sour. The Indian government was forced to refuse the cargo after environmentalists and dock workers there allied to protest the dumping of hazardous materials. The lesson is that one of the uglier aspects of the long-standing relationship between wealthy and poor nations is rapidly changing.

In a related story, the shipment to India would not have been necessary if the U.S. Department of Defense were not prohibited by law from accepting waste mercury from civilian sources at the huge secure repository of waste mercury maintained by the military. Legislation proposed by Rep. Tom Allen would lift that ban temporarily, until the Environmental Protection Agency develops an alternative for civilian mercury. This is hardly the first time a senseless division between government agencies has been revealed, nor is it the first time government agencies have been found to be slow to learn that senseless divisions are not good.

In the category of lessons not learned, there is HoltraChem in Orrington. The years of accidents, spills, fines and protestations of poverty by the company should have been ample warning to the relevant state and federal agencies that at some point the public would be left with a huge mess on its hands. Now the plant is closed,the company says it is essentially broke and the public mess part begins -- some of the Orrington property is so contaminated, experts say, that no amount of cleanup can ever make it usable again.

A paper trail, largely running through chemical industry trade journals, indicates that at least one large corporation -- the mega-defense contractor Honeywell -- had ownership interests in HoltraChem. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has shown considerable diligence in following that trail and is sending out clear signals that it intends to pursue the responsible parties.

On the other hand, the EPA, despite its resources, says it has been unable to determine whether Honeywell or any other large corporation has legal links that make it a responsible party for HoltraChem. There's a lesson in there somewhere, too.

Judy Berk, Natural Resources Council of Maine, 3 Wade Street, Augusta, Maine 04330, ph - 207-622-3101 X203;fax - 207-622-4343; email -

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