Twenty-two months after the beginning of its construction and almost five years behind schedule, the Valdivia mill started operating in the Lakes Region. The announcement was made on 30th January by Alejandro Pérez, General Manager of Celco (Celulosa Arauco y Constitución, forestry subsidiary of the Angelini group), who called this project a “historical investment”. The delay was due to the resistance of citizens’ organizations, environmental activists, indigenous peoples, peasant women and especially the residents of the coastal town Mehuin, who for over three years successfully campaigned to prevent Celco from dumping its effluents into Maiquillahue bay.
Less than a month later, the nearby communities began complaining about the unbearable smell from the mill: San José de la Mariquina in the west (about 10 km away), Lanco and Lancoche in the north (almost 30 km away) and Valdivia in the south (60 km away) were, according to the winds, alternatively aggressed by Arauco’s fetid monster.
The original project was to build and operate an industrial plant for the production of 550,000 tons per year of bleached kraft pulp. This will require 2.24 million m3 of radiata pine and 563,000 m3 of eucalyptus, that is to say about 5,000 hectares per year. The bleaching is to be made by applying the ECF process (Elemental Chlorine Free), misleadingly promoted in order to make believe there is no chlorine implied, and not the TCF process (Totally Chlorine Free). The project will have a productive life of more than 20 years, and an estimate investment of 1,045 million dollars.
The Environmental Impacts Assessment’s results, based on information provided by the company itself, shows the level of the impacts. Air emissions will release daily into the atmosphere 2.4 tons of particulates, 3.04 tons of sulphur dioxide (SO2), 4.69 tons of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and 0.25 tons of total reduced sulphur compounds (TRS), the malodorous gases typically found during the pulp processing. Liquid effluents include 900 litres per second of industrial liquid wastes (RILES in Spanish) and 250 litres of cooling water, which means a total of 1,145 litres/sec discharged into the River Cruces. Additionally, there are 1,450 m3 per month of sludge from the treatment of liquid wastes and 40,100 m3 per year of other solid waste.
Bad smells are not the only problem. What started with claims about nauseating odours ended in a number of irregularities. Faced with repeated complaints, environmental and health authorities began to set up inquiries, though slowly and rather late. They found categorical evidences establishing that the company had no system for emissions abatement, control and monitoring; besides, it began to operate last February without completing the required municipal procedures, payments and sanitary certificates, obviously in breach of the project’s environmental licence.
Furthermore, additional pipes, not included in the EIA and discharging industrial liquid effluents were discovered in the plant. It is worth mentioning that the mill’s industrial effluents flow into the River Cruces, the main water reserve of the Nature Sanctuary of Río Cruces, a site included in the RAMSAR convention to be protected by Chile’s government.
The company keeps on selling illusions. The following are some of Arauco’s environmental promises in the face of the continuous opposition led since 1995 by citizens’ organizations: “The mill will use the latest technology to produce bleached pulp”, or “The selected technology resolves the problems of liquid effluents, solid wastes and gas emissions”. Other passages are more specific: “the effluent will have no perceptible colour”, “[this will be] a mill without any smell problems”, “TRS emissions will be undetectable to human smell in communities neighbouring the project site” (Environmental Impacts Assessment, Valdivia Pulp project, August 1997). “The Valdivia project will apply the latest and best environmental technology available, thus becoming one of the three major pulp mills in the world” (Mario Urrutia, Engineering Manager, Diario Estrategia, 1996).
Five months after beginning to operate, facts belie the company’s promises and credibility. Two inquiries opened by the Health Department led to a penalty with a 1,000 UTM fine (about US$ 48,000) for infractions of the Sanitary Code, while the Regional Environment Commission (COREMA) fined the company twice, with 500 UTM (US$ 24,000) and 400 UTM (about US$ 19,000) for nonobservance of the Environmental Resolution. Furthermore, the municipal authority of San José de la Mariquina, the community where the mill is located, closed the plant because the company had not the required documentation allowing it to operate in this territory. The closure lasted only a week. Besides, individuals and civil organizations lodged an appeal requesting the cessation of the mill’s activities until the appellants and residents of Valdivia province are given guarantee that the company will comply with the mitigation and monitoring measures against environmental pollution included in the Environmental Impact Resolution. To date the verdict is still pending.
Some conclusions may be drawn from the above:
- Celco goes on lying: what the authorities initially evaluated and accepted was a 550,000 tons per year project, but in starting its operations the company announces a 700,000 tons per year mill, without any changes to the environmental assessment.
- The only way this kind of projects can be legitimated in political and social terms is by means of disinformation and misleading promises about their environmental and social impacts.
- Companies such as Celco are so powerful that they act with complete impunity. They are able to set in motion an investment of more than one billion dollars without having the necessary permits nor respecting environmental engagements and standards. Fines are so derisory that they merge into running costs. In addition, the State allows and facilitates such huge investments but lacks the necessary technical capacity and political will to keep them under control.
- The economic and political factors around these projects make it impossible, once they are established, to mitigate the environmental and social impacts inherent to the business in question.
- This kind of experiences shows that, in Chile, the huge investment projects put the environment, people’s health and sustainability in danger. As for people, they do not trust any more these initiatives whose effects are corroborated as soon as they start operating. The growing opposition manifests itself through the successive conflicts over environmental issues, where economical interests, environmentally unscrupulous, are confronted to communities who refuse to be the victims of environmental injustice.
By: Lucio Cuenca Berger, National Coordinator of OLCA (Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org