More woes for South America's leading cellulose producer: Neighbours of Chile's Celco upset with foul-smelling plant
RENATA STEPANOV, EL MERCURIO, LA NACIÓN, OCTOBER 3, 2006
Pollution coming from Celco’s new plant in Nueva Aldea has caused many complaints.
Chile’s largest cellulose production company, Celco, is facing criticism about smells emanating from its new US$1.4 billion plant in Nueva Aldea (Region X).
This latest woe comes after the company’s much publicized stand-off with artisan fishermen, who adamantly reject a waste pipe project from Celco’s Valdivia cellulose operations (ST, August 21). The fishermen achieved a small victory recently, halting environmental tests for the planned waste pipeline into the Pacific.
Whether or not the farming families protesting the smelly Nueva Aldea plant will be as successful remains to be seen.
“The smell is unbearable. It’s like rotten vegetables or eggs,” said Héctor Rabanal, a farmer who lives close to the new Nueva Aldea complex of Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco). “It makes you feel nauseous, gives you headaches, makes you want to throw up…. It’s impossible to live like this.”
Doctors at the medical clinic in Nipas, located 11 kilometers away, have received patients complaining of nausea and sickness due to the odor. But both Celco officials and local authorities assert that no one’s health is at risk – rather, the local community just needs time to get used to the smell.
“The bad smell? It was strong on Wednesday (September 27), but it’s necessary to get used to it,” said local official Benito Bravo. “The incidents have been isolated; they don’t happen much. Perhaps the kids who were nauseous and vomiting had problems before.”
Celco Public Affairs Director Iván Chamorro, who said the smell is emanating from decomposed wood, also spoke positively of the plant’s first nine months of operation.
“Generally speaking the (pilot phase) has turned out very well,” he said of the US$1.4 billion plant’s performance. “The only real annoyance neighbors can complain about is the smell. There have been bad smells; they’re not used to them, so it can cause some irritation.”
Chamorro did acknowledge that certain kinks need to be worked out at the new plant. “Obviously some things don’t function as they should–that’s why it’s called a pilot phase—and we are beginning little by little.” Moreover, he added, the emissions are “way under” the standards set by the World Health Organization and “do not pose a single health threat.”
But according to some community members, the impact goes beyond noxious odors. Rabanal’s son Victor, who produces wine in the region, said the local wine industry will perish thanks to the plant. Eighty thousand bottles of wine sent to Sweden were recently returned, he said, due to the valley’s tarnished image. “We can’t put Nueva Aldea on our labels because of the association with Celco,” he said.
Celco is Chile’s largest forestry company and the third largest company of its kind in Latin America. It belongs to the Angelini Group, owned by one of Chile’s wealthiest and most influential families. Despite its high profile status, a series of environmental mishaps – and virulent attacks from local community members, fishermen, and environmental activists – have caught the attention of the global community.
In 2005, waste emissions piped into the Cruces River from another Celco plant near Valdivia are believed to have contaminated local drinking water and led to the death and mass migration of the area’s black-necked swans (ST, May 9, 2005). Greenpeace activists blockaded the entrance to the Nueva Aldea plant on June 21, alleging that chemical waste from cellulose production will have the same impact on the Itata River (ST, Jun 23), which will receive the new plant’s emissions.
One proposed solution to the problems at both plants is to build a duct routing industrial wastes into the ocean. In February, Region VIII’s Environmental Commission (COREMA) approved this controversial project for the Nueva Aldea plant (ST, Feb. 14), and the company proposed to construct another such duct from the Valdivia plant.
This angered local artisan fishermen in the Mehuin commuity near Valdivia, who number five thousand. In August they boarded and apparently attacked the vessels conducting environmental tests (ST, August 21). So far Celco has not announced whether or not it will resume the tests.
Without the duct, the Valdivia plant can only operate at half capacity, which translates into a monthly earnings loss of US$27 million, according to company figures.
But things are looking up at the Nueva Aldea complex: management hopes to produce close to 40,000 tons of cellulose per month as of December, and will invest another US$50 million to double its production of wooden planks. This year’s overall earnings are estimated to reach US$3 billion thanks to a predicted 25 percent increase in sales.
But anti-Celco activists are not backing down. Last Saturday opponents to Celco’s Nueva Aldea plant formed a united coalition, which includes Group in the Defense of Itata, Salvemos Cobquecura (Save Cobquecura), Chillán Activo, and Greenpeace, among others. They are supported by local town councilmen Felipe Rebolledo and Carlos Garrido.
Rebellodo recently filed a claim against the Besalco construction company, hired to construct the Nueva Aldea duct, and against Celco, alleging it carried out work illegally on private property. He is also demanding that Celco to pay attention to the demands of local people in the private and public sector.
One month after Secretary General to the President Paulina Veloso proposed a round table to initiate dialogue between Celco and the communities it affects, the company appears to have warmed up to the idea. The company has contacted certain community groups, as well as the regional and national authorities, to address their concerns.
“We don’t see (the round table) as too far off; it’s one approach,” said Director of Corporate and Commercial Affairs Charles Kimber. “There have been advances in dialogue with various concerned parties, but there has been no dialogue with the fiercest opposition.”