Chileans win historic victory over toxic 'sacrifice zone'

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Anita Peña Saavedra

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

In 1993, environmental history was made in California when a self-taught activist, Erin Brockovich, began a three-year court battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over contaminated drinking water. That same year, one of Chile’s most beautiful coastal areas, Quintero-Puchuncaví, was declared an environmentally “saturated zone” by the Agriculture Ministry due to sulfurous anhydroid and particulate material in the air. This ominous label was no surprise to the inhabitants of these mostly working-class communities: for years, they had been calling on the thermoelectric, petroleum and chemical firms in the area to stop polluting the air, soil and water – and for the Chilean government to hold them to account.

Like Erin Brockovitch, the local women who have played key roles in Quintero-Puchuncaví’s grassroots environmental groups had little training when they began the fight against corporate polluters and weak regulations. But like Brockovitch, their courage would help to ensure justice was done. On 28 May, after years of citizens’ calls for justice, environmental history was made on the Pacific coast once again. In an unprecedented decision, Chile’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and confirmed that the government was ultimately responsible for the area’s environmental contamination, and that it must take concrete steps to prevent another event like the chemical leak that descended on Quintero-Puchuncaví in August and September 2018, sending over 1,700 people to hospital.

The landmark ruling also focused attention on denials of responsibility by the companies most likely to have been the source of the 2018 environmental emergency, a large yellow cloud containing substances such as methyl chloroform, nitrobenzene and toluene. Although there had been widespread media attention for last year’s dramatic event (if not for the brutal police response to a peaceful protest march by local citizens and environmental activists), the 2018 mass poisoning was far from the first or only example of environmental crises in Quintero-Puchuncaví.

Some 100 former employees of CODELCO Ventana, a state-owned thermoelectric plant in the region, have died of cancers that the mineworkers’ trades union Federacion Minera de Chile says were directly linked to their work environment. In 2011, more than 40 children from La Greda elementary school in Puchuncaví fell ill from a cloud of toxic gases. An investigation found high levels of lead and arsenic in the school, which was located just 500 metres from a National Copper Corporation of Chile (Codelco) refinery and thermoelectric facility. The government’s inadequate response was to close La Greda and move pupils to another school just 2km away. Compounding the problem in this and many other such crises is the fact that manhy of Chile’s environmental standards are far below world norms: the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure to sulfur dioxide is 20 ug/m3 as a 24-hour mean, for example, but Chile’s is 250 ug/m3, more than twelve times as much.

For many years, the Chilean state has openly stated that some areas of the country must pay the price for the nation’s resource extraction and processing industries. The clue is in the official term “sacrifice zone” that is applied to five regions, including Quintero-Puchuncaví, where the state has allowed thermoelectric, petroleum and chemical industries to operate since the 1950s. The Annual Human Rights Report of 2011 argues that the Quintero-Puchuncaví “sacrifice zone” constitutes an obvious injustice, because the economic benefits it generates are distributed among Chileans as a whole, but the environmental costs are borne by people in a situation of social vulnerability.

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Anita Peña Saavedra is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. She tweets at @anpenasaavedra

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo credits: Anita Peña Saavedra