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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: From One Conflict to the Next

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jun 4 2007 (IPS) - In what was hailed as a landmark ruling, the Chilean Supreme Court ordered the state to pay compensation to 356 residents affected by pollution with toxic metals in the northern city of Arica.

The authorities, meanwhile, are investigating an oil spill that occurred in mid-May in the south of the country.

“Unfortunately, all of this makes something very clear: in Chile there is a lot of talk about the environment, but there is no real intention to solve the problems,” Fernando Dougnac, president of the environmental group Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente (FIMA), told IPS. “Environmental rules and laws are only complied with in appearance, and for commercial reasons.”

The Supreme Court recently sentenced the Health Service in the city of Arica to pay eight million pesos (around 16,000 dollars) each to 356 residents of two poor neighbourhoods affected by the toxic waste, because the heath authorities failed to provide the necessary health and environmental protection and services, said Dougnac.

Eight years ago, FIMA filed a lawsuit demanding an environmental clean-up and compensation for years of damages against Promel, a Chilean firm, and the Chilean government, in representation of nearly 1,000 inhabitants of the Cerro Chuño and Los Industriales neighbourhoods in Arica.

However, only one-third of them were benefited by the ruling, Dougnac pointed out.

The low-income homes of these people were built in 1995 as housing expanded into what was previously an industrial zone. The homes were built near a huge mound referred to locally as the “black hill”, consisting of 20,000 tons of toxic materials like lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, zinc and copper.

The waste products had been purchased from Sweden by Promel, which no longer exists, for reprocessing.

The resultant pollution caused health problems among local residents, including “fainting spells, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, skin rashes and mental problems,” said the court ruling that ordered the payment of damages.

The Supreme Court established that the Arica Health Service failed to live up to its obligations under the country’s health code and environmental legislation, and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, in effect since 1992.

Promel imported waste generated by Boliden Metall AB in 1984. However, the material was never reprocessed or treated.

Dougnac said it was a typical case of illegal trafficking of toxic substances.

Silvia Encina, 57, a representative of the Los Industriales residents, told IPS that until the non-governmental organisation Servicio Paz y Justicia visited the area in 1997 to collect samples of the waste, local residents were unaware of the dangers to which they were exposed.

“The black hill was in front of my house, across the street. The children played there all the time,” said Encina.

In 1998, the waste was removed by the authorities and dumped in a nearby ravine, she said. On the spot where the mound used to be, two small football fields were built.

In 1999, the local residents decided to take legal action. The initial verdict ordered Promel to clean up the area, but did not order the payment of compensation. However, an appeals court later established that some 170 people were to receive indemnification – a number that was eventually increased to 356 by the Supreme Court.

“Despite the negative aspects, for us this is a victory,” said Dougnac. “In the end we had to take the longest, most tedious and most costly route. More than the money, the ruling represents amends for the local population, and recognition of their dignity.”

“This verdict sets a precedent,” said Encina. “It’s very important, in order to keep something like this from happening again. We don’t want the Chilean desert to continue to be treated like a garbage dump.”

Nevertheless, the amount of damages awarded is insufficient, she argued, because costly tests are needed to monitor lead levels in the blood, for example, some of which are not even carried out in Chile. Some of the local residents continue to suffer from vomiting, nausea and headaches. A number of children also have learning and behavioural problems – typical symptoms of lead poisoning.

“We don’t know if it’s related to this, but a lot of miscarriages have happened around here. My 27-year-old daughter recently lost her pregnancy when she was three months pregnant,” said Encina.

So far, 5,000 people have had blood samples taken for tests. Of that total, 150 had blood lead levels of 15 to 20 micrograms per decilitre of blood (mcg/dl), and five had levels of over 30 mcg/dl. The acceptable limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is 10 mcg/dl.

Dougnac believes the residents should be relocated. He and the locals blame 15 to 20 deaths on the pollution. “Only around 400 children with lead poisoning have been treated. They have been given ferrous sulphate and their milk rations have been doubled,” said Encina.

“We have demanded that the authorities give us all of the necessary tests to check up on our health, but the only thing they have offered us are blood tests. However, after so much time has passed, we need more specific tests, of our hair and bones, to measure the lead levels.”

The Arica Health Service said it would comply with the ruling.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation to determine who was responsible for a May 25 oil spill in San Vicente bay in the southern region of Bío-Bío.

Some 350 cubic metres of oil spilled into the bay while the “New Constellation” ship was unloading crude oil into an underwater pipeline, and the pipeline leaked.

Although a clean-up plan was immediately put into effect, the local flora and fauna sustained damages. There were fears that the spill could spread to the Tumbes peninsula and threaten a local colony of penguins there.

Small-scale local fishers say the damages to the fish and shellfish have put them out of work.

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