Sick Citizens Take Argentine Tannery to Court
By Marcela Valente
The Arlei company is accused of dumping toxic chemicals in the province of Santa Fe. The tannery's executives decline to comment.
BUENOS AIRES, (Tierramérica).- Residents of the city of Las Toscas, in the northwestern Argentine province of Santa Fe, are awaiting the definitive ruling in a lawsuit filed against a leather tannery accused of dumping toxic waste that filtered into residential water sources.
The lawsuit, involving 150 people who were affected by the toxic chemicals, was filed in July 2001 against the Arlei tanning company, and two lower courts have ruled in favor of the citizens. Now it is up to the Supreme Court of Justice prosecuting attorney Santiago Kaplun told Tierramérica.
Justice authorities enacted a preventive lien on the tannery property as the people of Las Toscas await the final ruling of the Supreme Court.
Arlei, which opened up shop in 1990, is the most important business in Las Toscas, employing some 1,200 people in a town of 10,000 people. The company is one of Argentina's leading leather exporters.
In 1998 Arlei requested a six-million-dollar loan from the Inter-American Investment Corporation of the Inter-American Development Bank to expand its operations.
But the creditor conditioned the loan on Arlei's construction of a wastewater treatment plant in order to stop the dumping of chromium into the surrounding watershed. The plant was inaugurated in 2000.
Arlei representatives declined to comment when consulted by Tierramérica. They said they would not issue statements "while the controversy is in the hands of justice and the court has not yet issued a decision."
According to studies conducted by the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, the proportion of chromium in the liquid waste of the Arlei factory was 30 times greater prior to the installation of the treatment plant.
The samples of industrial liquid and solid waste, as well as sediments, were taken in May 2000 and sent to the British University of Exeter, where scientists found they were highly toxic, Greenpeace activist Verónica Odriozola told Tierramérica.
The elevated concentration of chromium that can contaminate water consumed my humans is associated with higher cancer rates and genetic malformations.
The chemical also causes irritation of the body's mucous membranes, eyes and skin, as well as respiratory illnesses. The tolerable limit for humans has been established as five micrograms of chromium per liter of blood. In Las Toscas, there are residents whose blood tests at more than 130 micrograms per liter.
Elisa Kacsán, head of the toxicology lab at Cullén Hospital in Santa Fe, found that 24 people out of 32 cases studied had higher than acceptable levels of chromium in their blood.
Among the people affected by exposure to chromium and phenols, substances used in the leather tanning process, there are three litigant groups demanding compensation totaling 15 million dollars from the Arlei company, says attorney Kaplun.
First are the families of those who died of cancer that could be directly linked to contamination caused by the tannery. Most of the victims are children between ages 8 and 14.
One of the plaintiffs is Nora Mancini, whose 14-year-old daughter died of leukemia in April 2000.
"In March we were preparing for her formal fifteenth birthday party and suddenly she became ill. They diagnosed leukemia, and she died a month later," Mancini told Tierramérica.
Another group of plaintiffs "are those who have cancer, or spots on the skin, rash, asthma and other health problems, and who need very costly medical treatment," according to Roque Cirmi, head of the Northern Santa Fe Environmental Association.
The third group is made up of those who are "contaminated", whose blood or urine tests show extremely high levels of chromium and phenols, although they do not yet manifest symptoms of illness.
The Santa Fe provincial government says the indicators of contamination are indisputable, but does not officially associate the phenomenon with the operations of the tannery.
Meanwhile, residents near the factory continue to complain about foul odors and skin ailments and sore throats.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.