Minister of Foreign Affairs – Anna Lindh
Response to written question from Eva Zetterberg (v)
June 30th 2000
Eva Zetterberg has asked me, referring to the health problems affecting the population in northern Chile due to hazardous waste, what measures the Swedish Government has taken to ensure that Swedish companies, whose activities have harmed people and/or nature outside Sweden, do take their responsibilities and help solve the problems that have emerged.
Let me first say, that the Swedish Government is deeply concerned and uneasy about the health problems affecting the population of Arica in northern Chile and that all involved parties have a common interest in understanding and resolving the situation that has afflicted as constructively as possible. Let me also say that environmental legislation has changed since Boliden’s exports to Chile took place. The measures called for by Mrs. Zetterberg have therefore already been taken. What happened cannot happen again.
What has happened is the following:
Boliden sold 19,000 tonnes of smelter sludge from Sweden in 1984 and 1985 to the Chilean company PROMEL (reportedly by Chilean conservation agency CONAMA; Boliden refers to 12 400 tonnes). PROMEL intended to extract precious metals from the reportedly highly toxic sludge at its plant in Arica, northern Chile.
In 1997, the Ministry of Health in Chile discovered that the waste had never been disposed of but instead deposited in the desert outside Arica. The sludge must have contained very high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, among other things. This has since been linked locally to a high frequency of serious illnesses as the residential area adjacent to the waste’s storage site has been gradually developed.
According to information from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, which is the relevant permit authority, the export took place following the then applicable Swedish environmental legislation, and thus no legal irregularities were committed in Sweden by Boliden at the time of the export to Chile. Boliden, on the other hand, can be said to have a moral responsibility.
Sweden already introduced rules on the export of environmentally hazardous waste during the 1970s. Permission for export was granted by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentally hazardous waste, however, included only a few types of waste. At the time of the current export, Boliden’s waste was not classified as environmentally hazardous. International work on environmentally hazardous waste began in the mid-1980s. This resulted in the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement, Recycling and Disposal of Hazardous Waste.
The basic purpose of the Basel Convention, which entered into force in 1992, is to protect human health and the environment in the cross-border movement of hazardous waste. Parties to the Convention shall, inter alia, ensure that they have environmentally sound management of hazardous waste and that the production of waste is minimized. Waste that remains must be disposed of as close as possible to its source. Cross-border shipments of waste shall be permitted only if the exporting State lacks the technical capacity and necessary facilities, or appropriate locations for the environmental disposal of the waste or if the waste in question is needed as a raw material for recycling or other recycling industries in the importing State. Sweden has been a strong driving force in efforts to further strengthen the Basel Convention.
It would therefore be prohibited today to carry out such exports from Sweden to Chile.