By Jack Colhoun
The Olin Corporation shipped the last of 15 mercury cells from its closed chlor-alkali plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to the Electroquimica Pennwalt, S.A. (ELPESA) plant in Managua, Nicaragua, in early December. The closed facility was one of the plants that poured tons of toxic chemicals into the notorious Love Canal dump.
Olin moved its Niagara Falls operation from the closed facility — which used an outdated, polluting mercury-cell electrolysis process to produce sodium hydroxide (caustic soda, or lye) and chlorine — to a new plant nearby that uses less polluting technology.
The sale is part of a pattern, according to a recent Greenpeace report. Faced with growing public environmental awareness at home, US corporations are installing safer technology in domestic plants and selling their obsolete equipment to Third World countries.
"The history of the ELPESA plant is a casebook example of the hazards of the transfer of hazardous technology from the US to Latin America", said the report, "Niagara to Nicaragua: The Transfer of Hazardous Technology to Latin America".
"The import of old Olin mercury cells potentially represents another disgraceful chapter in the hideous contamination of Lake Managua, Nicaraguan workers and the surrounding community", it concluded. "This sale should not be allowed to justify the continued operation of the ELPESA plant."
The Nicaraguan government announced on September 30 that the plant would be closed. The plant, which manufactures about half of the sodium hydroxide and liquid chlorine sold in Central America, is a notorious polluter. Opened in 1968, it has dumped 40 tons of mercury into Lake Managua, turning it into one of the world's most polluted lakes. The venting of poisonous chlorine gas into the air has also caused respiratory problems among local residents.
Greenpeace warned in the report that ELPESA hopes the sale will lead President Violeta Chamorro's National Environmental Commission to reverse its decision to close the plant.
"Olin reports that the cells will be used for replacement parts at the ELPESA plant, and claims that this equipment will help ELPESA 'upgrade' its plant. ELPESA is pointing to this purchase as justification for continued operations", the report said. "In fact, the equipment is old. Moreover, the technology involved ... is inherently the most polluting method of caustic soda production, and ELPESA's toxic impact will continue to be severe despite the import of Olin's used equipment."
In the mercury cell process, an electric current from two mercury electrodes is passed trough concentrated salt water. Sodium hydroxide collects at one electrode and chlorine at the other. Greenpeace asserts that other technologies, using trona, a sodium carbonate ore, can produce sodium hydroxide without using mercury and producing
The Environmental Movement of Nicaragua, joined by Greenpeace and the Nicaragua Network, is calling on ELPESA to return the mercury cells to Olin.
"The ELPESA mercury nightmare resulted from the [original 1968] licensing of the dirty mercury process from Olin, and the total disregard for environmental protection and worker health by [the US-based] Pennwalt and other ELPESA owners", the Greenpeace report stated.
Pennwalt once owned 40% of ELPESA, but sold its share to Nicaraguan investors in the mid-'80s, according to a spokesperson for Atochem North America Inc. Atochem is a subsidiary of the French petrochemical giant Elf Aquitaine, which took over Pennwalt.
Chuck Kaufman of the Nicaragua Network called Olin's sale of toxic technology yet another form of deadly US intervention in Nicaragua.
"Soon after Chamorro took office, Nicaragua was flooded with offers to serve as a dumping ground for US toxic waste", Kaufman recalled. "Now US companies are exporting equipment that is so polluting they aren't allowed to use it in this country."
[From the US Guardian.]