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Polluted paradise: Chilean people await cleanup after closure of coal plants

Polluted paradise: Chilean people await cleanup after closure of coal plants

With its emerald green, its fine sand beach and its pretty umbrellas, the small town of Mejillones, in the north of Chili, has all the ingredients of a classic spa. However, it is one of the five “sacrifice zones” that challenge the energy transition in the country.

That concept, which describes an area where quality of life and the environment were sustainedly affected by industrial activity, was adopted in a memorandum by the Chilean Congress in July 2022.

Although the South American country, with significant solar and wind resources, launched an ambitious plan in 2019 to close its 28 coal plants, including the eight in Mejillones, by 2040, it must also restore the affected areas for years.

“Chile’s debt and the impacts of coal-based energy generation are considerable in the context of the climate crisis, but also due to the impacts it has on sacrifice zones”said Estefanía González, deputy director of campaigns for Greenpeace Andino (Argentina, Chile and Colombia).

People should not stay “completely unprotected because a company goes, exploits a certain territory and then leaves”he thinks.

Claim one “just transition” that not only allows us to abandon fossil fuels, but also “reconvert these territories, repair them and allow activities that have been affected to recover over time.”

Stage 4 cancer

On the dock of the fishing port of this town of 13,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Atacama Desert, 1,400 km from the capital Santiago, José González, 58 years old and wearing a black cap to protect himself from the sweltering sun, describes the stage 4 cancer that suffers.

Below, a group of sea lions wait for the remains that a local fisherman is about to throw to them, attracting a few curious onlookers.

“There is immense pollution here,” says this port official, currently on sick leave, while pointing out the string of companies linked to the chemical industry and other coal plants that have sprung up along that vast bay on the Pacific.

However, it is not easy for residents who live in contaminated areas to prove that this is linked to the cancer they suffer from.

“It can take many years before you realize it.” of a link, explained Michel Marín, president of the Medical College of Antofagastawhich asks companies to carry out in-depth studies that demonstrate that their activities do not pose any danger to health before launching them.

“History repeats itself” in other ways, the surgeon emphasizes, and cites contamination by lead or asbestos.

Burning coal releases many harmful chemicals into the air. Although the installation of filters has contributed to reducing these emissions for some time, there are still “pollution because coal parks are open”, says councilor Manuel Monardes Rojas.

However, he highlights the distance between the industrial zone and the town and its beach, which according to him is a “clean area”. “Mejillones is now focused as a municipality on the tourist part”he points out.

“Fewer species”

This Chilean summer, only a handful of swimmers brave the cold waters of the bay, while some tourists rest under straw umbrellas.

For José Sánchez, secretary of the Mejillones artisanal fishermen’s union, the sector is in a desperate situation. “The seabed is contaminated, there are fewer species, fewer mollusks, we lost everything”, says. He assures that of the 300 people who were dedicated to fishing there, today only half remain.

“The bay is dead”this gray-haired man complains.

A study carried out in 2019 and funded by the Antofagasta region demonstrated the significant presence of heavy metals and organic matter in the bay due to the dumping of industrial waste and wastewater.

Just as determining the cause of cancer cases among the population could take years, forcing companies to repair the environmental damage caused by their facilities is not going to be easy either.

The oldest coal plants “they do not have a legally binding obligation to take responsibility for the environmental consequences” of its activities, said the Chilean Minister of Energy, Diego Pardow, in a recent meeting with the French press in Santiago.

“That is part of the challenge of what we have to achieve now. That it is not simply turning off a ‘switch’, but taking charge of everything it entails,” he added.

Source: Gestion

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