Forgotten amid the toxic waste: The dump Sweden exported to Chile

Arica, Chile, Feb 27 (EFE).- When Daniel Bembow walks through the town of Sica Sica, where he was born, on the periphery of the northern Chilean city of Arica, he gets emotional, oscillating from sadness to rage and frustration.

“It gives me a little nostalgia to remember these things. It’s difficult for me,” he told EFE while showing a photo from his childhood taken at the same spot.

“(My sister and I) grew up here, less than 100 meters (yards) from where the Promel mining company was and where decades ago it dumped tons of toxic waste,” he said.

Between 1984 and 1989, Swedish mining company Boliden dumped about 20,000 tons of mining waste on the outskirts of Arica, the capital of the same-named region on the border with Peru and Bolivia. The firm paid the Chilean firm Promel, which was hoping to extract gold and silver in exchange for processing the Swedish waste, a regular practice during the 1980s by developing countries in the Southern Hemisphere.

The toxic material – with high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead – was dumped in the open air in an area known as “Site F” located 200 meters from Sica Sica and next to a sector known as Los Industriales (The Industries), where in 1989 during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, housing was being built for low income families.

“In the afternoon in this area there’s a lot of wind and there’s no shelter. The wind blew the toxic waste all over the city,” Luz Ramirez, who in 1990 came to live in Los Industriales when she was 15, told EFE.

“Most of the kids in this sector played in ‘the marsh,’ where there were some big pits that Promel used for dumping the waste. when the sun dried it out it became like a kind of chalk with which we drew on the ground and walls. My sister wrote her name in yellow here and you can still see it,” said Bembow, pointing to the wall surrounding the site where the mining firm operated up until 1989 but now converted into a truck parking lot owned by Bienes Nacionales de Chile.

“Our play park was a dump,” he added, but at the time nobody knew it.

The community presented the first environmental complaint about the existence of “a black-colored hill from which a strong metallic odor emanates” in 1997.

After analyzing the material at the site, a year later, the stuff was transferred to Cerro Chuño, in the Quebrada Encantada zone, a “more secure” site but where several illegal settlements had been established by very poor people, who dubbed the new dump “the Swedish cemetery.” Although it had cleared the area, the state allowed other people to move in there, and there they have remained until now.

“These minerals were deposited here because they didn’t want to dump them at their origin site. They were transferred here through the (settlement) in vehicles without any protection, just a canvas cover that lifted up and from which the dust scattered around,” Marisol Maibe, the former neighborhood leader of Cerro Chuño, told EFE.

“When the Investigative Police (PDI) got involved in our sector, it was discovered that it was completely contaminated,” she added.

The local residents began suffering from illnesses of all kinds, and some even died. The majority didn’t know how or why they were getting sick, but all of them had one thing in common: they had had prolonged direct exposure to the heavy metals at the site.

“My sister started to have serious health problems very early on and they removed two tumors from her, the first one weighing two kilograms (4.4 pounds),” said Bembow.

Maibe, who lived for 18 years just 600 meters from the dump, said that at the time her children began having assorted health problems: internal hemorrhaging, skin diseases and problems with their internal organs. Her husband, who showed a very high internal arsenic reading of 70 points, with a normal reading being under 35, suffered several heart attacks and she suffered a miscarriage after which the doctors had to remove her uterus.

In June 2021, United Nations human rights experts concluded after visiting the zone that the residents of Arica continue to suffer from serious health problems “caused by the dump” and warned that “12,000 people” have been affected by the residues and many had died.

Among the health problems discussed in the report are cancers of different kinds, joint pain, respiratory difficulties, allergies, anemia, miscarriages and birth defects.

Even today, the people who need medical attention are being ignored, the experts said.

Bembow, who is now an environmental activist with a local organization, criticizes the fact that those who left the toxins at the site “never showed their faces” and “never helped” the people experiencing health problems. “People are dying, kids are sick,” he said.

Luz Ramirez’s 13-year-old son Mauricio has respiratory problems and also suffers from serious intestinal problems. “He became contaminated in my belly because he absorbed arsenic and lead from me. They first examined him at age 1 and since then he’s always had arsenic in his body,” she said.

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