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Children on the banks of the polluted Riachuelo River
Credit: Clarín Contenidos
A Flammable Neighborhood
By Marcela Valente

Potentially explosive chemical storage sites threaten the lives of thousands of people in Argentina's Matanza-Riachuelo river basin. Officials are studying the possibility of relocating some communities.

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 11 (Tierramérica).- Three thousand people live below the smoke stacks of petroleum refineries and alongside chemical storage sites, among rubbish and debris, and foul bodies of water, in "Villa Inflamable", a settlement in the lower Matanza-Riachuelo river basin, south of the Argentine capital.

"That's downtown Buenos Aires," María del Carmen Brite tells Tierramérica, pointing towards the city's tall buildings in the distance. "If this explodes, we're all going with it," says the woman, a member of the Villa Inflamable Development Partnership.

The entire 2,240-square-kilometer basin is polluted. From the point where it begins, west of the city, to where it flows into the Río de la Plata (River Plate), the lack of sewage treatment and wastewater and runoff from the 3,000 companies located in the area have severely harmed this water resource. But the lower portion is the most critical.

Brite is one of the 144 people who two years ago filed a lawsuit for environmental damage against the government and the 44 companies of the nearby industrial complex, known as the Polo Petroquímico Dock Sud. The case reached the Supreme Court of Justice, which in June issued a ruling requiring the government and the firms to present a clean-up plan.

On Sep. 5, at a public judicial hearing, Secretary of Environment and Sustainable Development Romina Picolotti acknowledged that Dock Sud holds "a potentially explosive combination" of industrial installations and announced that the 11 chemical deposits would be relocated within a year.

She also promised that the affected population will be "a priority" of the plan. While long-term measures are being set up, clean water will be distributed to the residents, as well as a special dietary supplement intended to neutralize the negative health effects of the contamination.

"They must think that because we're poor we are stupid," protested Brite, who barely gets by on a 50-dollar monthly subsidy for unemployed heads of household.

The neighborhood is in the town of Avellaneda, just outside the southern Buenos Aires city limits. The Riachuelo there is "a filthy sewer," says Brite's attorney, Jorge Iturraspe.

The water is nearly black -- flowing opaque and oily. Plastic bottles float by like waterlilies on the surface, and the river banks are covered in garbage. "Anything can turn up here. Even a cadaver," says Brite.

According to Picolotti, there are no epidemiological studies that verify the connection between the industry active in the area and the residents' health problems, though she admitted that the pollution does indeed exist.

There is only one study, by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, according to which 50 percent of the children ages seven to 11 in Villa Inflamable have traces of lead in their blood and 10 percent with chlorine in their urine.

Brite is 49 and has nine children. She has lived in Villa Inflamable since 1976. In 1998, pregnant, she had to be hospitalized. "Everything was swollen. They had to intubate me," she recalls.

She blames the clean-up of a chemical storage site belonging to Union Carbide, the same company responsible for the 1984 explosion in Bhopal, India, which claimed the lives of 8,000 people.

Her daughter, Camila, eight, was born with fetal stress. At age five she had hemorrhagic measles and lost some of her breathing capacity. Twelve children in Villa Inflamable have died because of the virus transmitted by that illness, she said.

And her son, Emir, 10, developed a rash one rainy day. The doctors diagnosed "poisoning from acid".

Her three-year-old son Yair was hospitalized for a week this year because of difficulty breathing, and was referred to the hospital's poisoning unit. "They ask us to test for toluene, benzene and lead, but the reactive agents are very expensive," Brite said.

She has no doubt that these health problems have environmental causes. And she remembers with sadness her son Rodrigo, who died at birth -- presumably from anencephaly -- and her first grandchild, who was lost to sudden infant death syndrome.

María Alejandra Sciarreta, who is also a plaintiff in the case that reached the Supreme Court, is 34 and receives a government subsidy similar to what Brite gets. Three of her nine children attend a school for the disabled. Two have lead in the blood. One was hospitalized twice in the La Plata Children's Hospital due to vomiting and dizziness. "Now he has many behavioral problems at school," she said.

According to the National Children's Defense Office, for Villa Inflamable "there is no remedy possible." What is needed is to relocate the 800 families living there, in addition to dismantling the industrial complex.

Alfredo Alberti lives across from Villa Inflamable, in the Buenos Aires district of La Boca, where he can smell the fumes coming from the Riachuelo and the chemical plants.

"They can't allow people to live exposed to these levels of pollution. They want to move the families just 10 blocks from here, along the Sarandí stream, which is the same rubbish," Alberti said.

"We don't want to move there," Brite agreed, adding, "here the clouds can walk. The chemicals release gases and we pray that the wind will carry them to the river, because if the cloud stops over your house, you're a goner."

* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.

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