“Mommy, I’m feeling sick,” says Florencia to her mother, Carolina, troubled by coughing and respiratory problems in a new episode of contamination in Quintero and Puchuncaví, two cities called the ‘Chilean Chernobyl’.
Located on the central coast of Chile, the two are considered “environmental sacrifice zones” since the Chilean government decided, in 1958, to relegate artisanal fishing and agriculture to transform the area into an industrial hub that today houses four coal-fired thermoelectric plants and oil and copper refineries.
Carolina Astudillo sadly remembers when she received a call from the school where her daughter studies to inform her that she was feeling sick.
Florencia “had to get (home) by her own means because the school is around the corner. I noticed that my feet were numb, I had a cough and my throat was scratching; I couldn’t breathe”, her mother told AFP in anguish.
READ MORE: More than 100 people suffer from poisoning in Chilean Chernobyl
Desperate, she took her daughter and rushed her to the hospital in Quintero. At the place, “they didn’t know what was happening; more and more children arrived, but they didn’t have the supplies to respond to an emergency like that”.
“My daughter was on the IV and her diagnosis was poisoning by unknown gases,” explained Astudillo.
Last Monday (May 30), in the cities of Quintero and Puchuncaví, located in what was once a tourist bay, more than 75 people, including 50 children, were poisoned by the contamination produced by the huge industrial park that houses them.
Crossing a highway and a few kilometers away, its approximately 50,000 inhabitants breathe daily gases emitted by about 15 polluting sources installed there for five decades.
The contamination has not stopped and the authorities indicate that those affected exceed one hundred. Classes were suspended for five days and the region is under an environmental emergency.
The Environment Superintendence ordered eight companies in the industrial park to take measures to reduce contamination that exceeded five times the norm. Codelco, the powerful Chilean state-owned copper miner, responsible for 8% of the world’s copper supply, is identified as one of the main culprits.
THE CHILEAN CHERNOBYL
But this is not the first episode of contamination of this imposing bay over the Pacific Ocean.
The environmental organization Greenpeace qualified the region as “the Chilean Chernobyl” after in 2018 around 600 people went to medical centers with an atypical picture of vomiting with blood, headaches, nausea, paralysis of the extremities, in addition to strange skin rashes that particularly affected children.
“In 2018 my oldest daughter, who was 15 at the time, fell (intoxicated). If you start to collect all the medical records of all the children, diagnosis and symptoms are the same,” says Astudillo.
As this mother speaks to AFP, her four children play in the courtyard of their home with a ball, while a huge black dog barks in the background. But Florencia suffers a sudden fit of coughing and quickly enters the house with swollen eyes.
“This is my daughter, see how she coughs? It’s like that!”, he complains.
WE LOOK FOR BALANCE
“The terrible thing is that they are killing us in silence”, says, in turn, Maria Araya, president of the User Advisory Board of Hospital Adriana Causiño de Quintero.
In 2019, the then government of Sebastián Piñera (right) developed a decontamination plan to freeze all emissions in the region, establish a particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide reduction, and a contaminant measurement program.
But for the population it was insufficient.
Araya, whose eldest daughter was also affected in the 2018 contamination, explains that “emissions range from 10:00 pm to 4:00 am”, that contaminant measurements “have not been efficient” and that the hospital in Quintero “does not have the capacity to respond to this type of emergency (poisoning)”.
The majority of the population works in polluting industries. Many went to protest, but did not ask for all the companies to leave, demanding a better hospital from the Chilean State, halting new industrial projects, transferring the Copper Foundry from Codelco and closing the coal thermoelectric plants.
“We can all live in a clean environment with renewable energies, where we, citizens and industries can work, produce and all live in peace. This is what we want, we seek balance”, says Carolina Astudillo.