The tide is turning against the global toxic waste trade, as an appeal court in Sweden considers the plight of nearly 12,000 victims.
The Swedish mining conglomerate Boliden began shipping toxic waste from its Rönnskärs smelter to my home town, Arica, in northern Chile in the mid-1980s, when we lived under the rule of general Augusto Pinochet.
Boliden could have chosen to store the material in Sweden, and they claim that it would have been cheaper for them to do so. Instead, they shipped it halfway around the world in a deal with the now defunct Chilean mining company Promel S.A.
The terms of Boliden’s deal with Promel are unclear. Boliden claims that Promel purchased the smelter sludge from them with a view to reselling extracted products.
However, an EU Parliamentary report on corporate human rights abuses states “it is an undisputed fact that Boliden paid Promel 10 million SEK (approx. 1 million euro) for taking care of the sludge”.
What is clear though, is that Promel ultimately failed to process the vast majority of the smelter sludge, and nearly 20,000 tonnes, containing arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals, were abandoned on the outskirts of our city. The waste pile lay uncovered for years.
There is some dispute about the proximity of the waste material to residential housing at the time it was initially received by Promel, but there is agreement, at least, that as our city grew, the dump site became a playground for local children.
By 1998, the Chilean government estimated that approximately 5,000 people had been exposed to dangerous toxins, and in 2009 it identified an array of illnesses and health conditions within our community, including cancers, birth defects, high rates of miscarriage and neurological disorders.
Today, an estimated 12,000 of my fellow citizens have been affected, part of the area has been deemed unsafe for habitation and a large-scale evacuation plan has been initiated by the Chilean government.
A legal action brought against Boliden by 796 Arica residents, a fraction of those affected, is now before the appeal court in Umeå, Sweden. The case is a technical one, and the outcome may well hinge upon the residents’ ability to establish a causal link between heightened levels of arsenic in their bodies and the exported smelter sludge.
In March 2018, a District Court in Sweden concluded that the victims had failed to establish that link, although went on to find it “remarkable and negligent of Boliden to have continued the relationship with Promel after realizing any exported waste would end up in an uncovered pile in close proximity to already populated areas – despite knowing this would never be acceptable in Sweden.”
On March 27th of this year, the decision of a Swedish Appeal Court will be issued, and the victims here in Arica will finally learn the outcome of their long fight for justice in the country where their nightmare began.
The export may well have been conducted in accordance with laws in operation at the time. That is a question for the lawyers.
Whether or not Boliden wins the legal argument, however, it is difficult to see how they can win the moral one. After all, they do not contest that they chose to export toxic sludge to Chile rather than deal with it themselves.
In a now infamous leaked internal memo, Lawrence Summers, chief economist to the World Bank, stated the economic case for the global waste trade: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that…”
Richard Denniss, chief economist to the Australia Institute, writes that “[s]ince toxic waste will inevitably make someone sick, we might as well make poor people sick, as doing so will minimize the amount of ‘foregone earnings’…[and]…[i]f it takes years for some pollutants to make us sick, why not dump pollution in countries where people don’t live long enough to get sick from the pollution?”
The trade in hazardous waste – whether conducted lawfully or otherwise – exposes impoverished communities such as ours to the risk of devastating harm. Developed countries produce 90 percent of the world’s hazardous waste and are best resourced to ensure that the waste is dealt with safely and responsibly at home.
So is it acceptable for a wealthy western corporation or consumer to look to the developing world as a site for the disposal of its effluent?
Maybe the tide of the toxic waste trade is turning. Efforts are currently underway at the UN to draft a treaty that would enable corporations to be held accountable for any human rights abuses and environmental damage that arise within the context of their overseas operations.
The potential costs of legal liability in such circumstances may be a risk factor enough to swing the “economic logic” back in favor of domestic processing and disposal.
A proposed amendment to the Basel Convention – the international treaty that regulates the movement of hazardous materials between nation states – would render the transfer of toxic waste from the developed to the developing world unlawful.
It needs just two more states to sign for it to enter into legal force. NGOs such as the Basel Action Network continue their work to highlight, name and shame unlawful shipments, pressuring States to do more to control illegal exports.
In the meantime, states that have long been targets for the disposal of the West’s hazardous waste materials are closing their doors to imports. China no longer accepts plastic or e-waste, and Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are also acting to stem the flow to their shores.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe, has written a letter in support of the Chilean victimswhich was recently presented to the Swedish Embassy in Chile along with a petition signed by 2700 residents from the affected area.
The EEB made four demands to the Swedish government: that a Swedish government representative based in Chile visit the affected site and meet victims of the environmental pollution; that the government work with the affected community in the development and delivery of an effective healthcare programme that will respond to the harms suffered; that the government pay reparations to the community in recognition of the its role in permitting the export of the toxic waste from Sweden to Chile; and to repatriate the waste, in order that it can be adequately and safely processed in Sweden.
So where does all of this leave us, the people of Arica? Boliden no longer exports its waste and is currently constructing an underground storage facility to contain similar waste.
The storage conditions of the waste in Arica would not be considered acceptable in the West – and yet staggeringly, over 30 years after it arrived, the toxic waste is still here in Chile.
It stands as a daily affront to our community. Boliden refuses to take it back.
We did not ask for it to be brought here. We are not the West’s dumping ground.
Rodrigo Pino Vargas is a representative and campaigner on behalf of affected people in Arica. He is working with the community to establish a foundation to provide long-term legal support and healthcare for victims and their families.