In a landmark case, Chile’s Supreme Court ruled this
week that the state must compensate 356 residents of two slums in the
northern mining city of Arica for health problems brought on by years
of exposure to open deposits of toxic waste. Promel, the Swedish
company responsible for the importation of the toxic materials, cannot
compensate the plaintiffs because the company no longer exists.
Court documents reveal that health authorities let the toxic waste lay
bare, literally on the ground without shelter, for almost 15 years as
the area became populated by poorer residents living on the city’s
The court ruled that the citizens of the Cerro Chuño and Las
Industriales slums of Arica each receive reparations of more than
US$15,000 for physical and emotional damages brought on by heavy metal
A previous ruling fixed the number of inhabitants eligible for
compensation at 176, but the final Court of Appeals judged another 180
residents worthy of reparation for emotional damages directly connected
to the toxic materials.
The state is liable because the Ministry of Health did not adopt any
measures to protect the residents from the 20,000 tons of toxic
materials it allowed Promel to begin storing in the area in 1984.
The court ruled that the Ministry of Health offered the residents no
protection and did not meet its obligations to the Sanitary Code, the
General Law on Environmental Areas and the Basel Convention Treaty.
Chile ratified the international treaty in November 1992 with the aim
of limiting the movements of hazardous waste from developed countries
to less developed countries like Chile, as well as managing existing
hazardous waste in an environmentally conscious manner.
THE BEGINNING OF THE PROBLEM
Promel bought thousands of tons of lead, arsenic, zinc, cadium, mercury
and copper and brought them from Sweden to Chile to use in the
extraction and treatment of minerals from mines in the area.
The cargo was left in Arica’s Site F, at the time an industrial area
with no residents. Years passed as Promel awaited authorization from
customs to use the materials, which was never granted. Meanwhile,
Chile’s Urban Housing Service (Serviu) began developing the area for
residential use despite possessing studies showing high levels of soil
contamination. In 1990 Serviu began building basic housing and
gradually developed the area to its present level of high population
Serviu argued that the housing deficit in the city and the people’s
wishes obliged it to build lodging in a zone previously designated for
Eventually Promel gave up attempting to put the toxic materials to use,
and in 1993 the company tried to transfer the waste to the government.
However, the Customs Service rejected the state’s paying for the
removal of the waste. In 1997 the Arica Court of Appeals ordered the
Ministry of Health to remove of all the materials, which was finally
done in March1998.
Despite the extraction of the materials, their dust had already been
spread around the community by the elements. Samples taken afterwards
revealed the presence of lead and arsenic in many houses. Blood tests
revealed that thousands of residents had high levels of lead in their
blood due to involuntary exposure to the waste.
In the court’s opinion, “The affected persons ingested or breathed in
these metals which produced--among other symptoms--hair loss, fainting,
vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, head pain, rashes, and mental problems.”
Other permanent effects of lead poisoning include high blood pressure,
involuntary abortions, brain damage, changes in the masculine
reproductive system, anemia, learning disabilities in children and
change in disposition. The Supreme Court decided to compensate all
residents who can prove their health has been damaged.
The case has taken almost ten years to reach final judgment. The
environmental lawyer Francisco Ferrada called the case history. “A lot
of people had their pictures taken with the victims, even Bachelet when
she was Minister of Health,” he said. “But no one was capable of taking
the concrete steps needed to repair the damage done. What the court did
this week was bring some justice to the victims.”
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