Filling and Packaging Industry Blog

Thursday, November 03, 2005

River Pulp Polution by Paper Industry. Double Standards on Pulp Mills?

Paper Pulp Polution on Rivers. Double Standards on Pulp Mills?

The ongoing pollution of Argentina's Paraná River by the pulp and paper mills along its banks seems as irreversible as it is invisible. But plans to build two similar plants on the Uruguay River, which flows along the border between the two countries, has thrust the issue into the spotlight, sparking growing awareness and increasingly vocal protest.


Nearly a dozen mills producing both wood pulp - used to manufacture paper - and paper itself are located along the Paraná River, and have a total combined output of some 850,000 tons a year. Some of these mills have been in operation for 50 years, and dump toxic waste directly into the river.

"It's true that we have these kinds of plants in Argentina, and it's also true that they are not harmless," admitted Juan Carlos Villalonga, head of the Argentine chapter of the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

"But the volume of production of these two new plants (to be built across the border in Uruguay) is substantially greater, as is the potential for pollution," he commented to IPS.

Given the green light by the previous Uruguayan government of neoliberal president Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), two foreign companies - Empresa Nacional de Celulosa de España (ENCE) of Spain and Botnia of Finland - each began to build pulp mills on the banks of the Uruguay River near the western Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos, with less than 10 km separating the sites of the two mills.

The projects drew harsh criticism from environmentalists and protests from area residents, especially on the Argentine side of the river, where opposition was led up by Jorge Busti, the governor of the eastern province of Entre Ríos.

Contrary to the expectations of many environmentalists, the change in government in Uruguay earlier this year did nothing to modify the situation. Socialist President Tabaré Vázquez, who took office in March at the head of the leftist Broad Front government, announced that both projects would be moving ahead as planned, and welcomed the 1.8 billion dollars in investment that the mills would bring.

The Argentine government of centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, meanwhile, conditioned its acceptance of the projects on the results of an environmental impact study conducted with the participation of experts from both countries.

But the increasingly vocal protests on the Argentine side of the river has led many in Uruguay to question why their neighbours are so staunchly opposed to the plans for the ENCE and Botnia mills across the border, while they silently accept the presence of plants that are equally or even more polluting on their own turf.

Environmental activists stress that many of the mills in Argentina were built before a sense of environmental awareness had developed among the general public. But today, they add, residents of the area are determined not only to oppose the new projects, but also to demand changes in the way pulp and paper are currently produced in their own country.

For the moment, opposition is focused in the eastern Argentine city of Gualeguaychú, across the river from Fray Bentos. Local residents are opposed to the new mills because they will dump their waste into the waterway shared by the two countries, releasing highly toxic and persistent pollutants like dioxins and furans.

The ENCE and Botnia mills combined will produce 1.5 million tons of wood pulp annually, which is double the output of the nearly one dozen pulp mills currently in operation in Argentina.
Although the plants in Argentina are not equipped with the cleaner technologies developed in recent years, up until now they have only been targeted by sporadic, isolated complaints from environmental groups. The local residents affected by the pollution have remained silent, either out of a lack of awareness or the fear of losing a source of employment.


However, the resistance mounted against the installation of the new pulp mills in Uruguay has dramatically raised the awareness of the Argentine public and opened its eyes to the existing problems in its own backyard, say activists.

"This is not a matter of inconsistency, of people accepting mills on one side and opposing them on the other side," stressed Villalonga. "What has happened here is that the public finally reached the point where they said, enough is enough, and the (Argentine) authorities have been forced to take the lead in these protests."

The turning point was marked by a massive Apr. 30 demonstration on the international bridge across the Uruguay River linking Gualeguaychú and Fray Bentos. Some 35,000 protesters came out to oppose the installation of the pulp mills, which they believe will irreparably damage fishing and tourism activities in the region.

But environmentalists have already been working for many years to raise awareness of the harm caused by pulp and paper mills in Argentina, Villalonga emphasised.

In the late 1990s, for example, Greenpeace and Taller Ecologista, an environmental organisation based in the city of Rosario in the eastern province of Santa Fe, released a joint study that was highly critical of the Argentine company Celulosa Argentina.

Celulosa Argentina owns the Capitán Bermúdez mill in Santa Fe, which borders on the province of Entre Ríos. The mill's effluents are dumped into the Paraná River, which joins the Uruguay River to form the Río de la Plata estuary, after flowing 4,000 km from its source in Brazil and crossing a large stretch of northeastern Argentina.

Water samples sent for analysis by the Taller Ecologista revealed the presence of numerous pollutants, many of them persistent pollutants associated with the use of chlorine in the pulp production process.

The organisation launched complaints against the company, but did not succeed in bringing about changes in the production process. Sergio Rinaldi, the coordinator of Taller Ecologista, commented to IPS that some of these mills were built several decades ago, when the general public was largely unaware of environmental issues.

In the province of Entre Ríos, where the most active opposition to the Uruguayan mills has emerged, one of the groups spearheading the movement is the Paraná Environmental Forum, an organisation originally founded to block the building of a dam, fight deforestation, curb overfishing in the area's rivers, and raise environmental consciousness among the public at large.
A study conducted in the northeastern Argentine province of Misiones by Ricardo Carrere of the Uruguayan environmental group Guayubira indicated that there are three large mills that control almost all local activity related to the forestry industry - the economic mainstay of the region - from the planting of the pine trees used to produce pulp to the production of paper.


One of them is the Alto Paraná mill, owned by Celulosa Arauco y Constitución SA (Celco), a Chilean company. Celco is under fire in Chile for a mill that has seriously polluted a lake in Valdivia, causing the death of hundreds of swans in a nearby nature sanctuary. In Argentina, the company produces 400,000 tons of paper a year using an elemental-chlorine free (ECF) bleaching process.

This technology, which is also to be used by the two foreign companies building the mills on the Uruguay River, releases smaller quantities of organocholorines like dioxins and furans, but does not completely eliminate emissions of the harmful pollutants. Carrere's research in Misiones revealed that residents living near the plant feel the impact of this pollution, but are largely afraid to speak out.

Numerous respondents, who insisted on remaining anonymous, told Carrere they suffered from severe headaches, allergic reactions and respiratory ailments apparently triggered by the sulphur compounds that the mill spews into the air. Carrere also discovered that a number of legal suits have been filed for cases of cancer and birth defects attributed to the pollution caused by the mill.

The first protests against the two new mills in Uruguay date back to 2002, when environmental activists and area residents unsuccessfully called on the government to halt the projects, given the lack of reliable studies measuring the combined impact of both operations. "The Kirchner administration didn't think the conflict would heat up and gave Uruguay a wink and a nod to carry on with the two projects," said Villalonga.

But the residents of Entre Ríos responded with a degree of awareness and organisation that caught everyone off guard, he added.

This unexpected reaction forced the national and provincial authorities to drop their former complacency and take on a leading role in the opposition to the projects. "It's this sudden shift that makes Uruguay angry," Villalonga remarked.

"For a long time, the two governments assumed that the controversy would eventually die down. That seems to be the most popular environmental policy in these parts: just sit back and hope that people don't find out what's going on, and don't protest, or eventually get tired and back down," he said.

The main task for the environmental movement now is to closely monitor the Argentine government's stance, to ensure that its opposition to the Uruguayan mills was not simply an "act" designed to win votes in the mid-term legislative elections earlier this month, but rather a genuine reflection of greater environmental awareness and commitment.

"If it's the latter, then perhaps now the government will shift its sights towards what's happening here in Argentina with pulp and paper production, and finally start working towards ending the use of chlorine-based processes, which are so heavily polluting," Villalonga concluded.

1 Comments:

  • Your article should not be ignored as it very entertaining. You did a great job in writing it and I give you credit for it.

    By Anonymous dust, at 21/7/09 12:57 PM  

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