'Environmental catastrophe' declared in Chile as arsenic contamination detected in water at up to 360 times accepted levels

Monday, April 21, 2014 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: arsenic contamination, drinking water, Chile

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(NaturalNews) An arid region of Chile off the South Pacific Coast has been declared an environmental catastrophe after tests revealed the presence of toxic heavy metals like lead and arsenic in rivers, lakes and groundwater serving nearby population centers. The Santiago Times reports that the city of Arica is particularly affected, as contaminated water piped into the city is making children sick.

The issue stems from 20,000 tons of toxic smelting waste that was imported into the port of Arica some 30 years ago from Sweden. A Swedish mining company known as Boliden had made an arrangement with the Chilean company Promel to recycle this waste, a project that reports indicate was never actually completed.

As a result, the waste was dumped on nearby lands and abandoned, where for years it seeped into groundwater unbeknownst to locals who continued to use it for other purposes. The region also became an industrial hotspot for mining and other operations that contributed even more pollution to the area, including water sources that irrigate crops growing in the Azapa Valley.

"Children from homes abutting the dump trampled playfully across the waste, locals carried off hunks of material to build extensions to their fragile adobe houses, and over time the wind did the rest, scattering arsenic and lead across the arid sands of Arica y Parinacota," wrote Belinda Torres-Leclercq and Angus McNeice for The Santiago Times.

Private company tasked with purifying contaminated water exposed for fraud

As awareness about the contamination has grown, the Chilean government has apparently tried to work with private waste-processing companies to clean up the area and at least purify the drinking water being piped into Arica. But reports indicate that Aguas del Altiplano, the private sanitation entity tasked with such responsibilities, has taken the cash and done nothing.

"There are irresponsible companies in this region that keep on contaminating our watershed, like the Choquelimpie project," Fulvio Rossi, a medical doctor and Socialist Party (SP) senator told The Santiago Times. "Others like Aguas del Altiplano don't comply with the minimum sanitary standards on arsenic in our drinking water, putting our health and the environment of our region in danger."

The nation's Environmental Evaluation Service had previously ratified a proposal to grant $5 million to Aguas del Altiplano to build a reverse osmosis water filtration plant dubbed Pago de Gomez, which was supposed to reduce heavy metal levels to near-zero. The plant was built, but experts say it is not truly operational, at least not all the time.

According to an independent study led by Andrei Tchernitchin, head of toxicology at the Chilean Medical Association's Environmental Department, drinking water serving children at a nearby primary school still contains about five times the legal limit of arsenic. This same study also identified polluted waters serving other areas with heavy metal contamination up to 360 times the legal limit.

Investigative police discover even higher levels of heavy metal pollution near Arica

Aguas del Altiplana has denied the findings, insisting that the plant is helping reduce heavy metal levels significantly. But followup tests initiated by the Investigative Police, and prompted by Tchernitchin, revealed otherwise, showing levels even higher than what was found as part of Tchernitchin's investigation.

"At the meeting I told the villagers not to drink the water, showing them both our and the police's results," stated Tchernitchin, rejecting claims by Aguas del Altiplana that the water is safe. "The new government should build more plants, [and] they should comply with the norms and regulations."

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