THE SANTIAGO TIMES, Friday, 24 July 2009, Decision Forces Forestry Company To Pay US$550,000 Fine
A Santiago court issued a major ruling against Chilean forestry company CELCO (Celulosa Arauco y Constitución) this week, upholding a four-year-old government decision to fine the company for pollution it dumped into Region XIV’s Cruces River.

The pollutants, released into the water between 2004 and 2005, caused a major environmental disaster that led to the death and migration of thousands of black-necked swans from the nearby Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary. It was a major national and international story at the time.

Shortly after, the office of Chile’s Superintendent of Sanitary Services (SISS) – upon determining that runoff form CELCO’s Valdivia plant exceeded both temperature and heavy metal limits – slapped the company with more than US$550,000 worth of fines. Studies showed that pollutants from the plant contained arsenic, phosphorous and nickel, among other substances.

The company appealed the SISS decision and, for the past three years, was able to sidestep the fine. That appeal has now been thrown out. The decision, handed down on July 15 by the Santiago Appeals Court, not only forces CELCO to pay up, but could also factor against the company in other pending lawsuits.

For the past four years CELCO has been engaged in another legal battle, this one against the State Defense Council (CDE), which is suing the company over the same issue. As evidence of CELCO’s wrongdoing, the CDE referred to the original SISS decision. That argument is likely to hold more weight now that the SISS ruling has been upheld by the courts.

The CDE also points to research by Universidad Santo Tomás biologist Nelson Lagos, who concluded that between May 2004 – three months after CELCO opened a major new pulp mill 30 kilometers upriver from the nature sanctuary – and May 2005, Carlos Anwandter’s swan population dropped from nearly 8,000 to just 518 (PT, March 18 ).

Lagos’ conclusions echo those of an earlier study by the National Forestry Commission (CONAF), which reported in early 2005 that within 12 months of the plant’s opening, the number of black-necked swans in the nature sanctuary fell from 6,000 to less than 300.

“Both the increase in swan deaths and the decrease in abundance and reproduction indicators – i.e. the number of chicks, swan pairs and eggs – suggest that starting in early 2004, the black-necked swans experienced a major change to their natural environment,” Lagos’ report states. “All of these abrupt changes observed in the Cruces River wetlands coincide with the opening of CELCO’s Valdivia cellulose plant.”

Lagos concluded that the rapid decline in the swan population was due to a serious deterioration in water quality. Following the lead of earlier studies (Muslow – 2006, Jaramillo – 2007, Lovengreen – 2008), Lagos backed the hypothesis that waste from the CELCO mill poisoned both the swans and their primary food source, a plant called luchecillo. Many swans starved to death. Others migrated away.

This month’s Appeals Court verdict could also figure against the company in its appeal to avoid an even steeper SISS fine (approximately US$900,000) for pollution it allegedly dumped into Region VII’s Mataquito River.

In mid 2007, thousands of fish and some livestock died in and around the Mataquito River. Suspicions immediately fell on a nearby CELCO plant, especially when police discovered a pair of manmade, pollution filled channels leading from the factory directly to the river (PT, June 11 , 2007). Researchers from the Universidad Católica released a study one month later that blamed CELCO directly for the ecological catastrophe (PT, July 16 , 2007).

By Patagonia Times Staff ( patagoniatimes@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )