Remedying Health Harms

Mining Waste From Sweden Poisons Chileans

Boliden ships its arsenic waste to Chile

In 1983, the Swedish mining giant Boliden decided to dispose of 20,000 tons of lead and arsenic contaminated smelter waste that had accumulated over the years at its Ronnskar plant, one of the most heavily contaminated sites in Sweden. Boliden explored several options for disposing of its waste, including building a lined container in Sweden, which was the solution recommended by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Boliden instead chose to ship the waste by boat to Arica, Chile, where it would supposedly be further “processed” by the Chilean company PROMEL.

It was well known at this time that the law would soon change and prohibit Boliden from shipping such waste to a developing country. Indeed, Swedish law was changed in 1985, and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal was enacted not long after, prohibiting this precise type of conduct.

A city is poisoned

After brief and unsuccessful attempts to process the waste, PROMEL left the waste sitting uncovered at the edge of the city, within one mile of the port. Children romped on this toxic playground for years, and the lead and arsenic dust blew into the surrounding area as well. From 1989-1996, not realizing that the waste was toxic, the city of Arica built housing developments within yards of the waste. People in those houses eventually became sick.

In 1998, following public uproar over the harm being caused by the waste, the huge pile was moved by truck to a location slightly further from human habitation. In 2009, a government study concluded that the area surrounding the original dumpsite was still contaminated, and that people living there had to be relocated. In 2013, the government finally began to tear down the homes and relocate the owners.

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The real victims: children

Arsenic and lead pose special problems for women during their childbearing years. During pregnancy, women may pass these toxics on to their fetuses. Developing fetuses and children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of arsenic and lead. Hundreds of cases of poisoning have been identified in Arica over the years, including the newest victims: children born years after the toxics were brought to Arica.

In response to a 2003 visit to Sweden by Arica’s Mayor, Boliden offered to work on a solution to the problem, provided that the company was paid for its work, including the cost of business class air travel to Arica. Not surprisingly, the offer was declined.

The victims sue Boliden

EDLC and lawyers in Sweden and Chile investigated and developed the case for three years, including a trip to Arica, before going to Boliden to again urge the company to compensate the victims. When Boliden declined, the lawyers filed suit in Sweden in September 2013. The lawyers represent over eight hundred victims, many of them children.

The case has received enormous media attention in Sweden and internationally. Sweden’s largest bank, which is also one of the largest shareholders in Boliden, immediately and publicly called on Boliden to compensate the victims, citing the company’s moral obligation to remedy the harms it had created. Boliden again declined, and began its defense of the lawsuit. Both sides have filed their first round of evidence with the court, and trial is scheduled for the spring of 2017. This case is the largest transnational corporate accountability case ever brought in a European court outside of England, and the first to be brought in Scandinavia.

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