CHILEPublished by MAC on 2007-06-01
CHILE MUST PAY US$5.4 MILLION TO ARICANS LIVING AMID TOXIC WASTE Mike Gaer, LA TERCERA, ELMOSTRADOR
(June 1, 2007) 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 margins.
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 poisoning. 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 density.
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 industrial use.
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 March 1998.
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 a sad 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."