Government shuts down state-owned copper smelter in Quintero

The government shut down the Ventanas copper smelter in Quintero Bay on May 31. The closure follows reports of poisoning among students and teachers of nearby schools. Ventanas, operated by state-owned copper producer Codelco, is said to have contributed to the release of toxic gasses into the area for decades.

With an official ceremony on May 31, the government shut down Codelco’s Ventanas copper smelter in Quintero. The ceremony was attended by the Chairman of Codelco’s Board of Directors, Máximo Pacheco, as well as by the Mining and Environment Ministers, Marcela Hernando and Maisa Rojas.

A two-year closure process will now begin, during which engineering work will be carried out and the necessary permits will be processed. In the end, the facility will be dismantled and the closure final.

After 59 years of operating, the current wind-down follows continuous reports of poisoning and intoxication among teachers and students of schools in the area. As recently as May 23, schools in Quintero had to shut down because of poor air quality. Then, just days after classes resumed, new symptoms of intoxication were reported. As of June 1, an environmental alert is still in effect.

Recent events are nothing new. In early April, over 60 people were hospitalized with signs of poisoning; and, in August 2018, a case of mass poisoning even led to multiple protests in the area.

Quintero is one of Chile’s so-called “sacrifice zones,” areas that have been permanently damaged by local industries. In the case of Quintero, the oil, gas, and copper industries are the ones that have been damaging the local environment. Next to the Ventanas smelter, Quintero and the nearby sector of Puchuncaví house a thermoelectric coal plant, liquefied gas and oil terminals, and chemical producers.

As a result, the 50,000 inhabitants of the Quintero-Puchuncaví sector regularly breathe in poisonous gasses. Codelco’s Ventanas smelter, a large producer of the toxic gas sulfur dioxide, is said to have contributed to the pollution in the area for decades.

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Chile’s Constitution states that it is the state’s duty to guarantee “the right to live in a pollution-free environment.” President Gabriel Boric made it one of his campaign promises to address the environmental problems in sacrifice zones. He announced the closure of the Ventanas smelter in mid-June 2022. During his announcement, he said that almost 60 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions in the area were produced by the state-owned smelter.

Smelter workers went on strike following the announcement. They only continued their work two months later, after an agreement was reached with Codelco, guaranteeing “a fair transition for the workers affected by the closure measure.” They were given the option of a voluntary exit, or a relocation to another Codelco location.

The director of Greenpeace Chile, Matías Asún, as quoted by Fox News, said that the closure “is a very important step,” but that “we still need to see what we’ll do with the entire industrial belt that was generated around the smelter.”

Codelco will continue to operate a copper refinery in Quintero.

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