Despite years of opposition mounted by a determined network of environmentalists and citizen groups, a new paper pulp plant began to operate Thursday in Chile.
The factory is operated by Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (CELCO), a Chilean firm notorious for the ecological disaster it is blamed for in a wetlands system near another of its plants, where hundreds of black-necked swans died off.
"In Chile, political decisions continue to take precedence over technical, environmental and social considerations. What we are seeing is a dictatorship of investments and of the power of the big corporations, with the government's complicity," Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told IPS.
In his view, that explains the inauguration of the new plant by CELCO, which already operates three pulp mills in southern Chile that have drawn fire for environmental and health damages since they opened in 2004.
The new factory forms part of the company's Nueva Aldea Forestry and Industrial Complex, located in the valley of Itata, in the region of Bío-Bío, 400 km south of Santiago. It is the biggest plant of its kind in the country, with a capacity to produce 858,000 tons of bleached pulp per year.
The company's southernmost plant, in Valdivia, in the region of Los Lagos, is still at the centre of controversy due to the disaster in the Cruces River wetlands, where hundreds of swans were killed as a result of the liquid industrial waste dumped there by the factory. (CELCO has not publicly admitted responsibility for the damages).
The Nueva Aldea Complex involved a total investment of 1.4 billion dollars, and will use pine and eucalyptus wood to produce paper pulp for export. The company reported that the new plant will reach its full production capacity within nine months.
According to Cuenca, the history of CELCO's newest factory is fraught with irregularities. The company presented its first environmental impact study for the mill in 1996, which was rejected in 2000 by the government environment commission (COREMA) of the region of Bío-Bío. But the company appealed the decision, and the project was eventually approved under the government of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006).
Two years ago, when the factory was in the midst of construction, local residents protested that its production would be greater than the stated capacity that had been approved by the environmental authority.
"The company had presented a total production of 550,000 tons a year, and it was building a plant that would produce 900,000 tons. That led to a halt in construction," explained the activist.
But CELCO drew up a new environmental impact study, which was also accepted, and work on the factory got underway again.
The most controversial aspect of the plan was COREMA's authorisation for the plant to dump its waste into the Itata River, which provides water for more than 40,000 small farmers, until the firm builds a pipeline to carry the waste to the sea. The company says the pipeline will be ready by late 2007.
Local residents and environmental activists have held protests against the pulp mill and its plans to dump its effluent into the river and the sea, calling on the government again and again not to grant the factory permission to begin operating. The regional medical association even issued a report sounding an alert regarding the health risks posed by the plant.
"I would like to see if the president (Michelle Bachelet) or any other representative of the administration talks again about a government in which the citizens participate, after taking a decision behind people's backs, one that clearly goes against the wishes of those who will have to coexist with this plant from now on," Marcel Claude, with the international environmental organisation Oceana, said Thursday.
The president of the non-governmental Institute of Political Ecology (IEP), Manuel Baquedano, told IPS that "the inauguration of this new cellulose mill is good news from a macroeconomic point of view," but not from an environmental point of view.
In July, the IEP published a "report on chlorine-free cellulose plants: a reasonable goal for Chile", which says the industry must move towards "technological reform or transition" to keep its industrial processes from generating serious health and environmental impacts.
Baquedano said these changes do not mean the current factories would have to be closed down. "All they would have to do is invest in new technology to modify the production process," he underlined.
The best available technology is a Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) bleaching process, and closed-loop production, which reuses water and chemicals and eliminates effluent discharges, said the activist.
The chlorine-based bleaching processes produce highly toxic organochlorines like dioxins and furans that accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and people, and can cause birth defects and cancer.
Most pulp mills around the world have abandoned the traditional chlorine-based bleaching process, which is highly polluting, and use the Elemental Chlorine-Free (ECF) technique, based on chlorine dioxide, which releases smaller amounts of organochlorines.
Both the Valdivia and the Nueva Aldea mills use the ECF bleaching method.
In Valdivia the situation has not improved. Due to the damages caused to the Cruces River nature sanctuary, which prior to the disaster was home to Latin America's greatest concentration (around 6,000) of black-necked swans (Cygnus malencoriphus), the plant was temporarily closed down and the Los Lagos regional COREMA ordered CELCO last year to present a new waste disposal plan.
The company proposed building a pipeline to the sea -- rather than adopt a closed-cycle system, which would have been more costly -- and began to carry out studies near the fishing village of Mehuín, population 1,700, whose residents are staunchly opposed to the project.
In August, fishermen in Mehuín blocked a boat hired by CELCO, along with a Navy vessel hired to escort the boat, from entering their local waters. The company was attempting to conduct tests in order to gain COREMA approval for the pipeline it plans to build, to dump its mill effluent into the waters near the village.
The local residents reported that the Navy vessel actually opened fire on the fishermen who went out to keep the CELCO boat from carrying out the studies.
The local fisherfolk have set watch day and night to keep CELCO out of the area where the pipeline would run into the sea.
The company has until April 2007 to present its environmental impact study on the pipeline. But it has announced that its report will be delayed due to the opposition of the village.
In the meantime, the mill effluent continues to flow into the Cruces River -- and down to the nature sanctuary.
"The fishermen from Mehuín are right to oppose CELCO's tests, because a completed study equals approval of the project, to judge by Chile's lax environmental legislation," said Baquedano.
"The fishermen are asking: if the plant's effluent polluted a wetlands ecosystem and killed hundreds of black-necked swans, why wouldn't the waste pollute the waters where they ply their trade?" he said.
The activist also criticised the environmental legislation of other South American countries, which have allowed national and local companies to install pulp mills that use methods that pollute the environment.
According to a study presented Wednesday by Greenpeace Argentina, 13 million hectares of land are currently dedicated to the production of wood pulp worldwide, 80 percent of which is in South America and Asia.
According to CELCO, during the construction phase, the Nueva Aldea Complex employed an average of 3,300 people, with a peak of 6,200, while the plants will generate 2,400 direct and indirect jobs.
In the last few months, the company has taken several steps in support of the community, such as distributing plots of land to small farmers, donating eucalyptus and quillay (soapbark) seedlings for reforestation, and providing assistance to the local fire department and to families affected by recent storms.
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