Two towns in Valparaíso region suffer from toxic cloud

SANTIAGO – The government has decreed a yellow alert for the localities of Quintero and Puchuncaví last week. The alert came in response to a toxic cloud over the communities. On Tuesday, the government confirmed 301 residents were injured by the gases, which presumably came from five different companies in the area.

An environmental alert was declared by the government last week, as a toxic cloud enveloped the towns of Quintero and Puchuncaví, presumably coming from companies that operate nearby. As at least 53 children suffered health problems, the regional authority (Seremi) suspended classes in the entire zone.

So far, at least 301 persons have suffered health problems, but the number is expected to rise as the source of the leak is still unknown. The environmental ministry stated that most contaminating gases probably came from state-run oil company Empresa Nacional de Petróleo Enap. However, other companies like GNL Quintero, Gasmar, Oxiquim, and Copec  could be the source of the toxic gases, too.

Investigations concluded that Enap is likely emitting fossil fuel gases as part of a pond cleaning process. The environmental Seremi has demanded Enap to stop this cleaning process, and also the withdrawal of waste oil from the company’s liquid industrial waste pool.

The environmental ministry indicated that since last Tuesday, a new gas measurement device is being used that registers more than 120 different chemical substances. “The measurements have registered fossil fuel gases. The accumulation of the different fossil fuel components can vary during the day, depending on the meteorological conditions (wind direction) and the distance from the industrial sector. That is why it is so difficult to detect where exactly the emissions come from,” the ministry said.

Civil society reactions

Civil society organization Terram expressed its frustration with the effects the toxic cloud has on Quintero and Puchuncaví’s residents’ health. In a statement, the organization said that “what is happening right now, is the worst contamination in the history of the area. We demand the immediate closure of this outdated thermoelectric, run by coal. We want a stop of the industrial compound growth, and the ruling out of all the maritime concessions.”

Terram also highlighted the importance of previous health checks of the population in the communities affected, and has demanded the state to pay the frequent medical examinations that affected people may need from now on.

Andrés León, representative of environmental organization Dunas de Ritoque, said that the organization will file a denouncement at the Superintendence of Environment against all the companies that have contributed to the continuous contamination in the area.

Universidad de Chile statement

Universidad de Chile’s Public Health school also reacted on the situation. Representatives and researchers from environmental health programs, epidemiology, health and community, and others, published a statement on the university’s news website supporting the affected population.

“We confirm the urgent need for a proper response from the state, about the creation of effective surveillance instruments, for the regulation, prevention, and tackling of the environmental damage that the communities have suffered for years,” said the release.

The university said a lack of risk communication plans prevents effective warnings about the risks of exposure to polluting substances.

UPDATE: Piñera greeted with protest in contaminated Quintero

President Piñera visited the communities affected by the environmental fallout. Piñera showed up in the city’s hospital – but wasn’t received with open arms. Violent protests took place near the center, as residents blamed the government, alleging a flawed response from the state.

Some protesters even attacked Piñera’s vehicle. When the president went to a high school in Puchuncaví, Carabineros de Chile had to engage the crowd outside the school. No one has been arrested.

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