OLCA en la Prensa: Santiago Times - January 19, 2005

Campaigners To Push For Further Sanctions
Tom Burgis (editor@santiagotimes.cl)

The Celulosa Valdivia wood pulp plant in Region X, allegedly responsible for emissions that have poisoned 4,000 black- necked swans and local water supplies, was ordered to suspend operations Tuesday after local authorities found it was in breach of environmental regulations. A special session of the Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) for Los Lagos voted unanimously that the US$1.2 billion plant, which extracts cellulose from wood, should be temporarily closed while an environmental impact study is carried out.

“The plant will be closed for a minimum of 10 days. The maximum depends on the company,” the regional head of the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA), José Luis García Huidobro, told The Santiago Times. The meeting, chaired by Regional Governor Jorge Vives, came to three resolutions.

First, it ruled that the plant had failed to notify COREMA of an emissions duct it had added, which discharges the plant’s waste into the Cruces River. Second, it asked the governors of the nearby Carlos Andwandter Nature Sanctuary – where 4,000 rare black-necked swans have either died or migrated in recent months after their marshland habitat became contaminated (ST, Oct. 28, 2004) – to apply to be placed on the endangered list of the international Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands. Third, it threatened to issue fines against the plant’s owners should the plant fail to conform to provisions in the Resolution on Environmental Qualification (RCA).

An inspection by the regional Operative Regulation Committee (COF) Jan. 13 found the plant’s production capacity exceeded the permitted level, that it was breaking numerous environmental regulations – including dumping water above permitted temperatures – and had illegally sunk a well. The ruling comes as a further blow to the plant’s owners, Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco), one of the world’s biggest forestry companies and by far the largest forestry enterprise in Chile. Earlier in the week its Itata plant was ordered to close after it was found to have flaunted environmental regulations (ST, Jan. 14).

At a demonstration outside CONAMA’s Santiago offices last week, Valdivians and conservation groups denounced the governmental body for failing to sanction the Valdivia plant. They accused the government of bowing to economic pressure to keep the plant open (ST, Jan. 13). Environmentalists and residents were jubilant at Tuesday’s ruling.

A coalition including the Coordination for the Defense of the Cruces River Nature Sanctuary and the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts will hold a press conference in the capital Wednesday demanding the closure be made permanent.

Marcel Claude, the head of the Oceana aquatic conservation group, told The Santiago Times, “This is not the time to celebrate. This is not a definitive decision and we don’t know what will happen next.” Nonetheless, the news will come as a relief to residents in Valdivia, where 100 people are in hospital with symptoms of chemical contamination.

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, submitted evidence linking the Celco plant’s emissions to the outbreak to the Environmental Commission of the Chamber of Deputies Dec. 17. Weeks later, he died of exposure to toxic waste. In 1999, Celco, part of the Angelini group, one of the two largest financial conglomerates in Chile, signed up to the Environmental Impact Evaluation System (SEIS), which monitors damage caused to the environment by industry. After a protracted wait for a permit, the Valdivia plant opened in February 2004.

Almost immediately the plant began to fall foul of the regulators. In April, COREMA hit the company with a US$25,000 fine after malodorous fumes began to drift from the plant downwind to Valdivia.

In October, a lesser fine was issued when the company failed to notify the authorities of changes to the way it monitored the use of pesticides. A further administrative sanction came in December when the plant was late in filing its environmental report. Celco, whose consolidated sales in 2003 totaled US$1.5 million, will now be forced to modify both its Valdivia and Itata plants before it may continue production.