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ARGENTINA: Riachuelo Factories Must Clean Up or Close Down

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 6 2006 (IPS) - In an unprecedented move, Argentina’s Supreme Court held a public hearing with the aim of securing commitments from the State and private companies to live up to the clean-up plan for the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, a byword for pollution in this South American country.

“When exactly will the last remaining sewage drains be ready?” asked the president of the Supreme Court, Enrique Petracchi, interrupting from the dais, when the secretary of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Romina Picolotti, was detailing aspects of the comprehensive project for the recovery of the Matanza-Riachuelo river, which runs across the city of Buenos Aires and into the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary.

Picolotti said that in 15 years’ time the seven million people who live in the basin area, whether or not they are environmentally at risk, will be connected to the drinking water supply and to the sewer system. She also said that in the short and medium term, a number of measures will be taken to reduce the most vulnerable population’s exposure to pollution.

“This Court is gravely concerned about pollution and its harmful effects on health and the environment, but we are also aware that the (private) companies which cause pollution employ thousands of people. How will you solve the first problem without creating a greater one?” Judge Petracchi wanted to know.

The environment secretary replied that the government’s actions “will make it their priority to maintain sources of employment.” However, she said, “we cannot allow extortion by the companies.”

“The State will create mechanisms for the reconversion (of polluting companies), but will not go down on its knees to preserve jobs,” she emphasised.

This dynamic exchange of proposals and questions characterised Tuesday’s hearing, which was convened in June by the Supreme Court to find a solution to the century-old pollution of this 64-km river, which covers an area of 2,240 square kilometres.

More than 3,500 factories, 13 slums and numerous open-air garbage dumps are located along its banks, and a large number of clandestine sewage pipes pour liquid waste directly into the river.

The Court convened the hearing as part of a suit brought two years ago by 144 people who live or work along the river. The plaintiffs complained of the harm they suffered as a result of living beside what has been described as “an open sewer,” which is heavily polluted with organic and industrial waste.

“The pollution of the basin is a well-known and notorious fact,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jorge Iturraspe, told the judges. “This is a historic opportunity to punish those responsible for converting the Riachuelo into a filthy sewer, and to restore citizens’ faith in justice and the rule of law.”

The environment secretary admitted that the State has not carried out epidemiological studies among the people living near the river, but acknowledged that the health complaints experienced by many riverbank residents are related to the presence of organic material as well as lead, mercury, chromium and other industrial residues in the water.

Picolotti was speaking as a representative of the national government, but also on behalf of the authorities of the Argentine capital and the province of Buenos Aires.

The Environment Secretariat will coordinate the comprehensive clean-up and regulation plan, which has been agreed by all government sectors with jurisdiction over the river basin. The Matanza-Riachuelo River runs through 14 different Buenos Aires municipalities.

Picolotti remarked that the present situation is the result of “decades of social and environmental degradation,” and promised that the State will “resume its regulatory role.” She described the project sent to the national legislature in late August to create a River Basin Authority, made up of delegates from all three layers of government – municipal, provincial and national.

The project also calls for the participation of the 14 municipalities affected, by means of an advisory council. In addition, there will be a consultative commission for civil society participation, made up of environmental organisations and local residents.

The River Basin Authority will have policing powers over the river. “The overlapping jurisdictions were an obstacle to action,” Picolotti said, adding that the planned Authority “is an expression of their joint political will; it’s the legal instrument needed to enforce the plan.”

She described the scope of the clean-up project, which aims to eliminate pollution and increase regulatory control over factories. She warned that the 3,500 factories located on or near the river would have to improve their waste treatment technology, or face the risk of being closed down.

“The purpose of this plan is for the State to remedy inequalities, because we have a situation of environmental discrimination, in which certain sectors of the population are bearing a disproportionate load of pollution,” she said. Zoning and the location of industries will therefore be planned in a more orderly fashion.

At the same time, the authorities will develop infrastructure to provide households with sewage services, enlarge effluent treatment plants and build new ones, extend storm drains to prevent floods, and provide drinking water for the entire population.

While these works of infrastructure are being carried out, safe water for human consumption will be distributed by water trucks, as well as dietary supplements for the neediest residents, she said.

Picolotti stated that the basin will be cleaned up in 15 years, but that significant improvement will be seen in 10 years. “It all depends on how long it takes for the river to recover,” she said, not wishing to raise false expectations. In effect, construction of a sewage treatment plant will take from five to seven years, she explained.

In order to beef up monitoring and regulation of factories, she said, the current resources comprising three vehicles and two inspectors for the entire river basin will be replaced by a team of 250 inspectors, 70 vehicles, a helicopter, Coast Guard vessels, and fixed and mobile laboratories throughout the basin.

With regard to over a hundred open-air rubbish dumps, she said that they held 300,000 tons of waste, half of which contained toxic and dangerous elements, and promised agreements with the municipalities to clean up the area in under a year and prevent any further dumping.

The hearing is to continue in a separate session beginning Sep. 12, when 44 companies accused of polluting the area will be heard. Non-governmental organisations involved in the struggle against pollution and in favour of cleaning up the basin will also present their arguments at that time.

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daniel rasch