Toxic Trade News / 25 June 2006
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With Delay, Legal Loophole, Hazardous Oil Trickles into India
by The Indian Express
25 June 2006 – It has taken government five years to begin cleaning up the mess created by two lots of toxic waste oil, some 2,000 tonnes of it altogether. And so long did government dawdle in determining that the stuff was hazardous that it was too late to send it back to the country that shipped it. Finally, the Supreme Court forced action. The first consignment of 133 containers landed in August 2000, described as furnace oil.

Central Intelligence Unit of Customs, Mumbai, held it back for suspected under-invoicing. By August 24, 2000, tests done by the Central Revenue Control Laboratory (CRCL) revealed the containers contained waste oil. The consignment was then seized by the CIU.

By October 2001, reports from the National Institute of Oceanography Goa, and Shriram Institute of Industrial Research (SIIR), Delhi, confirmed the presence of PCB, a highly carcinogenic chemical, in the waste oil. But then it was too late to send the oil back to the Gulf countries, from which it had arrived, for according to the Basel Convention, for hazardous material to be accepted back by an exporting country, the complaint has to come within a month.

The consignment stayed in the port premises to Mumbai Waste Management Ltd disposal site at Taloja only on December 31, 2005. To date only 40 per cent has been disposed of by incineration. The problem is that by Indian law, the customs department takes note of a consignment only if it remains unclaimed for 45 days. By this time the 30 day period within which hazardous substances can be sent back is past. Even after those 45 days, the customs department has to hand out notices to importers named in the original papers before they can open them. Only after the Supreme Court order of March 11, 2004, entrusting the matter to a monitoring committee for handling of hazardous material at ports.

The importers argued that the imports were made before India signed the Basel Convention, and it was already lying in the ports when the government issued guidelines declaring the imports illegal. "Also, the levels of PCBs in the consignment is very small. The Indian standards are even stricter than European standards,'' said Nidhesh Gupta, counsel for some of the importers based in Mumbai.

The companies submitted a list of industries where this oil could be reused in India, justifying the imports. The court was not convinced. On January 5 last year, the Supreme Court asked the monitoring committee to ensure disposal of all 133 containers within four weeks. The committee is said to have made its first visit to the port premises only in April 2005. It says it doesn't have the manpower for this kind of an assignment.

The committee considers the evacuation of the 133 containers from the port a victory in itself. D B Boralkar, a member of the committee and member-secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, says, "Considering the various practical difficulties, the work could not have been done any earlier than it is being done currently."

The customs department says time was lost because there was no clarity about who would actually pay for the incineration. According to law, the importer has to pay, but in this case, some of the 15 importers went missing and did not respond to notices. Others chose to file cases against the department.

Finally, in its May 18th 2005 order, the Supreme Court asked the customs department to provide the funds to avoid any further delay in the disposal of the containers. Now it is the second set of 209 containers that needs to be taken care of.

However, it was only on January 25, 2006, that the SCMC had asked for samples from the 209 containers to be sent to the National Institute of Oceanology, Goa. So far, none of the 24 importers responsible for this consignment have filed the Bill of Entry documents. Claude Alvares, a member of the committee, says, "One way of getting over this legal problem would be to levy a heavy penalty in cash on a daily basis on anyone not claiming his consignment in time."

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