OLCA en la Prensa: Santiago Times - January 13, 2005

100 Hospitalized In Valdivia; Officials Deny Celco Plant Emissions To Blame
Tom Burgis (editor@santiagotimes.cl)

Leading environmentalists and residents of the Valdivia province gathered in Santiago Wednesday to accuse the government of doing nothing to prevent an imminent environmental catastrophe in southern Chile's Region X.

Protesters outside the offices of the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) demanded that the Celulosa Valdivia wood pulp plant be shut down, insisting that emissions from the plant are damaging the nearby Cruces River Nature Sanctuary and poisoning the local population's water supply. Inside, the executive director of CONAMA, Paulina Saball, met environmentalists and leaders of citizens' groups.

"The problem is the Angelini group and Celulosa Arauco," said Lucio Cuenca of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, after what was reportedly a heated meeting.

"It is they who have lied, who have consistently infringed the law for a year, that have poisoned the 100 people hospitalized near the plant … The government always believes Celulosa Arauco and never its own citizens," he said.

Nothing concrete had been agreed at the meeting, Cuenca said. Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco), one of the world's biggest forestry companies, opened the controversial cellulose extraction facility last February after a long period awaiting environmental permits (ST, Feb. 4, 2004). The company is part of the Angelini Group, one of the two largest economic conglomerates in Chile.

Environmentalists and residents say waste dumped by the US$1.2 billion plant in the Cruces River has polluted waterways in the sanctuary, causing the death or migration of 4,000 black-neck swans (ST, Oct. 28, 2004) and the hospitalization of 100 residents downstream in the vicinity of Valdivia.

Cuenca demanded that the government honor its commitment to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of 1981, which named the Cruces River Sanctuary as a protected site. "Effectively the Celulosa plant is responsible for the destruction of the Cruces River Sanctuary. The damage is enormous and potentially irreversible," said Carlos Leal, a representative of a Valdivian residents' group.

"The government and the public body CONAMA are constantly justifying the company, before taking into account what we the citizens are saying. We live in Valdivia: our city is veritably collapsing," Leal said. While CONAMA acknowledges the sudden deterioration of swan stocks in the sanctuary, it denies that the Celco plant is to blame.

José García of CONAMA's Region X office said action was being taken to rectify damage to the sanctuary but that "no one can prove a connection with the plant." "The plant is complying with the Resolution on Environmental Qualification, which imposes regulations stricter than those in Chilean law, stricter than regulations in the United States or Europe," García told The Santiago Times. He said the commission was awaiting the second part of a report by the Universidad Austral into the deaths and migration of the rare black-necked swans, expected in late February.

The first part of the university's study, dismissed by critics as a whitewash, was released in December and failed to find a link between the plant's emissions and the deaths of the swans (ST, Dec. 7, 2004). But Marcel Claude, a former Central Bank economist and now the head of the Oceana conservation organization, said that, in the absence of independent regulation, Celco uses its own technology to monitor emissions.

"The damage is not just to the swans, it's to public health, the water, the soil, our future projects, our jobs, everything," said Leal. He revealed that Dr. Juan Ramón Silva de la Paz, a general practitioner and councilor in San José de la Mariquina, a small town 47 km northwest of Valdivia, had died after exposure to toxic waste. Silva had been conducting an independent study of the effect of water contamination on public health in San José when he developed acute respiratory problems and died.

Before his death, Silva went before the Environmental Commission of the Chamber of Deputies Dec. 17 to report that he had seen 400 patients with symptoms of poisoning. Symptoms included sickness, headaches, sever respiratory problems and psychological ill health. "The cause must be environmental, because various treatments have not reduced the problems," Silva was quoted as saying by daily El Gong.

"He died simply by being exposed to what the people of San José breath every day," said Leal, who reported that 100 residents in the Cruces River basin are in hospital with symptoms of poisoning. Susana Conejeros of the Coordination for the Defense of the Cruces River Nature Sanctuary confirmed Silva's death and attacked CONAMA for also failing to regulate multinational mining companies operating in northern Chile and for failing to prevent the construction of Ralco dam, which flooded ancestral indigenous territory and damaged biodiversity in the Biobío basin (ST, Sept. 28). She said seven workers had died at the Celco Valdivia plant in the past year in industrial accidents, adding that the 20 fines meted out to Celulosa Arauco amounted to no more than an inconvenience for a company of its financial clout.

Oceana's Claude said the government was reluctant to act because of vested interests, citing "the influence of money in politics." "It is not a mystery to anyone in this country that economic sectors invest in politics," Claude told The Santiago Times. "The problem in Chile is conflicts of interest - what Congressmen do as politicians and what they do as businessmen." He pointed to the influence of the powerful Zaldívar brothers in shaping policy. Both are senators and Adolfo Zaldívar is the president of the Christian Democrats (DC) and a would-be presidential candidate. He and his brother Andrés are shareholders in the Angelini Group. "The brothers played major roles in the drafting of laws - particularly the Fishing Law - which have destroyed Chilean fishing resources, in favor of their own economic group, their own financial interests," Claude said.

He compared the disregard for democratic process to that of Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship. "When the people have no relevance, the authorities have no interest in listening to them, and that is when we are going to repeat what happened in 1973," he said, in a reference to the 1973 coup in which the military seized power.