The warm springs of Termas de Río Hondo, a city of 50,000 in Argentina’s northern province of Santiago del Estero, have soothed aching visitors for centuries. Another drawing card is Río Hondo reservoir just outside the city. Anglers, swimmers and water-sports enthusiasts have flocked to the 127-square-mile (330-sq-km) man-made lake since it was inaugurated in 1967 as part of a project to provide hydropower and improve local flood-control and irrigation.
But visits to the reservoir have dropped recently on account of the appearance of dead fish and strong odors in the artificial lake. Provincial government officials blame the problems on the worsening of pollution from sugar mills and other plants in neighboring Tucumán province that discharge waste into the Salí River, which empties into the reservoir.
The accusations have been fueled by a growing local protest movement focused on pollution of the lake. The demonstrations, usually designed to block traffic on the highway linking Santiago del Estero with the northern provinces of Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy, have become commonplace since starting last March, with some drawing up to 2,000 people.
“The studies we have indicate the presence of organic matter with high biochemical oxygen demand,” says Juan Carlos Targa, Santiago del Estero province’s sub-director for the environment. “That’s why extensive algae have appeared that consume the water’s oxygen, especially from May to October every year, which is the time of the sugarcane harvest when the sugar mills are in operation.”
Targa tells EcoAméricas he cannot confirm press reports suggesting that the contamination has sickened some local residents. Though complaints about pollution of the reservoir have been made for more than a decade, it took the emergence of the local protest movement last year to place the issue on Santiago del Estero’s political agenda.
Last year, Santiago del Estero Governor Gerardo Zamora began calling on his counterpart in Tucumán, José Alperovich, to fine operators of the mills and other plants responsible for the pollution. After a first round of talks with Alperovich, Zamora publicly demanded “deeds, because goodwill doesn’t suffice.” He also warned: “When mid-2007 rolls around, we can’t be facing new pollution damage.”
In October, the two governors met in Buenos Aires to discuss the problem with Argentine Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti, who followed up in December with a visit to Termas de Río Hondo.
During her Dec. 28 visit, Picolotti received a petition from neighbors of the thermal springs, and she announced a 100-million-peso (US$32-million) investment aimed at helping the sugar mills, citrus plants, paper mills and other plants that discharge their waste into the Salí River watershed to cut pollution through the adoption of clean-production methods.
“Impunity has ended in Argentina because the businesses are being called on to become environmentally up-to-date,” Picolotti said. She added that efforts to end the reservoir’s water-quality woes “will take time” because years of contamination must be reverted.
Despite such pledges, local environmental groups are sharply criticizing a bill filed in the Argentine Congress by two Tucumán lawmakers—one of whom is Alperovich’s wife. The legislation proposes the declaration of an environmental state of emergency in the Salí River watershed. If approved, companies in the watershed would be given 90 days to present investment plans aimed at achieving clean production. In return, environmental lawsuits filed against these companies would be suspended for a period of five years.
Proponents say companies must have the five-year respite to improve the environmental performance of their operations because otherwise they’ll be forced to close, sending thousands of workers into unemployment. But green advocates point out that Tucumán has had a clean-production initiative underway since 2002, and that the province’s own government recognizes it hasn’t worked because a majority of plants have ignored it.
Now, they insist, is the time for Tucumán to make clean production mandatory.
- Daniel Gutman