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CHILE: Pulp Mill Reopens Despite Charges of Killing Swans

by Gustavo GonzálezInter Press Service
August 18th, 2005

The imminent reopening of a pulp mill that polluted a nature sanctuary in Chile has further fueled environmentalists' criticisms of the Ricardo Lagos administration -- and is setting the scene for future conflicts with indigenous and fishing communities.

José Araya, leader of the organisation Action for the Swans of Valdivia, told Tierramérica that the government's administrative resolutions on the matter have favoured businessman Anacleto Angelini, owner of the Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco) plant, to the detriment of environmental standards.

Celco announced on Aug. 10 that by the end of the month it would reopen the factory, located near the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary on the Río Cruces, in the southern province of Valdivia. It will start at 59 percent of its productive capacity, and is expected to reach full operation -- 550,000 tonnes of cellulose annually -- by January 2006.

On Jun. 8, the company voluntarily shut down the plant, in the wake of the scandal about altering the scientific report on which the Supreme Court of Justice based its ruling acquitting Celco of the massive die-off of swans in the nature sanctuary, and revoking the factory shutdown ordered by a lower court.

Celco's lawyers presented the Court with its own interpretation of the scientific report, which was written by experts at the University of Concepción, instead of providing the report itself.

Although the Court recognised the ploy, it did not change its ruling. On Aug. 5 the Angelini group received the backing of President Lagos, who said in Valdivia that the pulp mill should reopen its doors if it obeyed environmental standards.

The Río Cruces sanctuary was home to Latin America's greatest concentration of black-necked swans (Cygnus malencoriphus), with some 6,000 of these birds. Since October 2004, experts began to notice that many of the swans and other species were dying due to the waste from the cellulose plant dumped into the area's waters.

More than 500 black-necked swans died, and today in the marshes there are only 300, because the rest migrated as a result of the dwindling supply of the plant that serves as the birds' main sustenance, due to contamination from the factory, according to a study published in April by the Southern University of Valdivia.

Chile's National Commission on the Environment, CONAMA, had closed the factory on Jan. 18, but then authorised its reopening on Feb. 16.

The regional delegation of CONAMA on Aug. 10 gave its implicit approval of the reopening by indicating that a Jun. 6 resolution remains in effect that obligates Celco to maintain reduced output as long as it fails to comply with some of the environmental standards.

In Araya's opinion, these administrative resolutions are illegal. "According to all the precedents presented by citizens, recognised by the national political arena, this factory necessarily should be subject to a new environmental impact study."

The activist rejected the arguments by the factory's supporters in defence of the 300 direct jobs at Celco, and another 2,000 indirect jobs in the forestry sector.

"What needs to be done is a complete assessment of the pulp mill's social costs. Here there is an environmental cost that citizens are paying, that the country's natural heritage is paying. There is also a social cost, for the effects on (farming and tourism) activities of other residents of Valdivia," Araya said.

President Lagos supported the idea of building a channel so that the industrial liquid waste that Celco has been dumping in the Río Cruces would be diverted to the Pacific Ocean instead, off the coastal town of Queule, 80 km north of Valdivia.

The production of kraft cellulose from pine and eucalyptus is destined entirely for exports for making paper. The whitening technique, known as elemental chlorine free, is one of the most widely used in the world, and is based on chlorine dioxide.

While Lagos gave his blessing to the channel in the nearby coastal village of La Barra, an assembly of artisanal fisherfolk, environmentalists, residents and representatives of other groups rejected that solution.

One outspoken opponent is Alfredo Seguel, leader of the Coordinator of Territorial Entities, an umbrella group of more than 20 Mapuche indigenous communities, including the Lafkenche, whose members live in coastal areas.

"The people most affected would be the Lafkenches. There are precedents that cellulose, despite all the technology being used, is always going to contaminate. Here it would harm ecosystems, food sovereignty and also the cultural and religious rights of the Mapuche communities and of peasant farmers and fishers," Seguel told Tierramérica.

The Angelini group wants to divert the Celco wastewater to the ocean because it is the cheapest option, as the channel would cost 45 million dollars, while the construction of a closed circuit for eliminating the waste in the factory itself would cost 120 million dollars, said the indigenous leader.

Celco has responded by saying it complies with all of CONAMA's requirements for correcting the contamination over three phases. The first was to improve the biological system for treating wastewater.

The second phase involves the installation of filters for the final outflows, and tertiary treatment of chemical waste will be implemented at 80 percent production capacity. The final phase is to begin in January, when the factory is operating at full capacity, according to Celco, which says it hired an external environmental consultant to supervise the process.

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