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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
- “This isn’t like a tsunami, which appears all of a sudden, but a silent enemy that kills you slowly, as you breathe and drink the water,” says Hugo Ozores, who lives in González Catán, a working-class district in Greater Buenos Aires.
For the past decade, local residents in this district on the southwest side of the Argentine capital, which has a population of 300,000, have been complaining about health problems that they blame on a sanitary landfill in the area that receives 2,500 tons a day of garbage
The case was among those heard by the sixth edition of the International Water Tribunal, held in November in Buenos Aires to study five Latin American disputes over access to clean water.
The International Water Tribunal ruling urged the Metropolitan Environmental Association (CEAMSE) – the municipal company that runs the landfill – and local residents to work out a solution. In the meantime, the people of González Catán continue drinking polluted water.
The Tribunal’s resolution “has no legal standing and is not binding, but it has political and scientific weight, and we see it as a step forward,” said Ozores, one of the local residents who testified before the panel of judges.
A decade ago, the people of González Catán, which forms part of the densely populated district of La Matanza, began to notice a stench coming from the landfill, and started to associate the increasing frequency of health problems with the dump.
The landfill is run by CEAMSE, a company created 33 years ago, during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, to collect and dispose of garbage in the metropolitan area.
At first it received rubbish from the city of Buenos Aires and several outlying districts. But as a result of the pressure from local residents, a new law was passed limiting the reception of waste to La Matanza.
The rest of the trash goes to other dumps operated by CEAMSE on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, which are almost filled to capacity, as environmental organisations complain. The company itself has recognised that the landfills are operating at the limits of capacity, and is seeking new land.
“We inherited CEAMSE from the dictatorship,” Ozores said. “They say they dug a pit and lined it. But the legal investigation found leachate in the Morales stream and the Puelche aquifer, from which water for local consumption is extracted.”
He was referring to a study carried out by experts with the Gendarmería Nacional, a national police force, which found high levels of Escherichia coli, arsenic, nitrates, chromium, toluene, benzene and hydrocarbons in the water samples.
The Gendarmería investigation was ordered by the courts after a community organisation, the Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados de González Catán, filed a legal complaint alleging that the groundwater that they drank was polluted.
“The water we drink comes from wells, and just adding chlorine isn’t enough to eliminate the chemicals and heavy metals it contains,” Ozores said. In 2006, Judge Juan Salas instructed local residents not to use the water from their taps, “not even to brush your teeth.”
But no government authority has distributed clean water in the neighbourhoods, and few people can afford to buy bottled water.
The only official distribution of water is done in local schools – basically an acknowledgement that tap water in the area is not safe.
The local residents then filed a complaint for “breach of public duty.”
But no solution has been reached. And in the meantime, cases of cancer, lupus, purpura and allergies are on the rise, local residents and activists report.
The hardest-hit neighbourhood is Nicole, which is next to the landfill. From houses in Nicole, the mountains of trash dumped by a steady stream of trucks are clearly visible. The waste is later covered over with dirt.
Greenpeace Argentina activist Lorena Pujó told IPS that the problem of waste in the metropolitan area “has reached a crisis point, because the landfills are full and have to be closed.”
Pujó said that for the past 10 years, CEAMSE has been seeking authorisation to open new dumps, but has been blocked by the resistance of local communities that do not want a landfill in their area.
Since 2003, Greenpeace has been pressing for a city law that would require the separation of waste at source, and would create recycling plans that would gradually reduce the trash disposed of at dumps, until achieving 100 percent waste recycling.
“The ‘Zero Waste’ law was approved in 2005, but nothing was done until 2007, and in 2008, it was dismantled,” she said. The plan was to reduce the proportion of waste that went to landfills by 50 percent as of this year. But no progress was made towards that goal.
The people of González Catán successfully pressed for a regulation reducing the amount of garbage buried in the dump. They also presented a proposal to the La Matanza authorities for the recycling and reuse of waste.
“We aren’t professionals, but we investigated local initiatives as well as experiences in other countries, like the case of Sao Paulo (in Brazil) or the U.S. city of San Francisco, and we presented a proposal for integrated waste management,” Ozores said.
“But nothing has happened, because the big business here is burying the garbage,” he lamented.