“Take back the toxic waste to Sweden”
It is high time that Sweden takes back the toxic waste from Arica in Chile, writes a group of Swedish and Chilean organizations in an op-ed and requests a decision from the Swedish government before the UN environmental meeting that will take place in Stockholm in June.
Nearly 40 years have passed since large amounts of toxic mining waste were shipped from Rönnskärsverken in Skellefteå to Arica in Chile. It still affects the local community's environment and human rights – 12,000 Chileans are estimated to have been exposed to the waste that risks leading to both cancer and miscarriages.
On 2-3 June Sweden will host a UN international environmental meeting in Stockholm entitled "A healthy planet for everyone's prosperity - our responsibility, our opportunities". The meeting is held at the 50th anniversary of the UN's first environmental conference which was held in Stockholm in 1972. Sweden would like to be seen as a world leader when it comes to environmental and sustainability issues, but the Arica case casts a dark shadow over that image. The Swedish state has not taken the responsibility to stop the poison scandal in Chile, to which it has contributed through its passivity. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states must ensure that companies under their control live up to their due diligence obligations, but the government does not act. It is now high time to do the right thing.
When Boliden shipped 20,000 tonnes of toxic mining waste from Rönnskärsverken in Sweden to the city of Arica in Chile, the Swedish state, through the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), was informed. But despite the norms on state responsibility for environmentally harmful activities that were developed in international law at the time, Sweden did nothing to prevent or control the export of the toxic waste to Chile. Chile, which was then a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet's regime characterized by disrespect for human rights, completely lacked effective environmental legislation as well as credible environmental authorities. Boliden was therefore able to avoid the stricter Swedish environmental protection requirements by exporting the waste. Boliden's waste contains large amounts of mercury, lead and other environmentally and health hazardous substances, and has already caused significant damage. This is how the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights describes the situation (SvD 28 May 2021):
“The effects of the Swedish state's failure to act have been catastrophic for the local community in Arica: many have died of cancer and other diseases; women have suffered from involuntary infertility and miscarriages; and newborns have suffered birth defects, including nerve and brain damage as well as spina bifida. The Chilean government estimates that 12,000 people have been exposed to the toxic waste."
Both the local population and the local environment are hit hard when neither Boliden nor the governments of Sweden or Chile take responsibility for the impact on the environment and human rights. The toxic mining waste contains heavy metals that are non-degradable. The waste will therefore continue to cause damage in the future, as long as it remains on site.
Despite repeated pressure from lawyers in Sweden who work for those affected in Arica as well as from eight of the UN's special rapporteurs on human rights, the Swedish government has not in any way acted to find a sustainable solution. The requirement is and remains that Sweden and Chile take urgent measures so that the toxic waste is returned to Sweden. In addition, those affected in Arica should be remediated for the injuries they have suffered and have their right to adequate health care guaranteed.
In an interpellation in the Swedish Parliament in June 2021 Per Bolund, the former Minister for Environment and Climate (MP, the Swedish Green Party), responded in a positive way that Sweden is committed and said that "we are of course prepared to assist Chile if such assistance was to be requested." Chile has since had contact with Sweden about the waste in Arica, but the Swedish government is silent. Recently, the current Minister for Climate and Environment Annika Strandhäll (S, the Social Democratic Party) announced through her State Secretary Anders Grönvall that there is neither a new decision nor any new information to share about what the government has done to help Arica in recent years. Thus, the government has neither taken any formal initiatives nor concrete measures.
This is a shame for Sweden. The government must listen to the people of Arica. Again, as the Swedish state neglected to control the export of the toxic waste to Arica, in accordance with international law, it is now responsible for contributing to the waste being handled in a sustainable way. Ahead of the UN meeting, we therefore expect a message from the government that it will undertake to work for a solution. By doing so, the government can ensure that Sweden lives up to the image of being a responsible and world-leading country within the environmental field, and together with Chile agree to start a process to move the waste from Arica.
The waste should be transported back to Sweden and Rönnskärsverken, where there is currently a suitable facility for the final repository. At Rönnskärsverken, the waste can be stored in the bedrock, 350 meters below the ground, unlike in Arica, where it is stored only a few decimeters below the ground. The toxic waste is also located on the outskirts of the city of Arica and thus affects the local population significantly, while in Sweden it would be stored in a much safer way.
We therefore call on the government to urgently take the initiative for an agreement with Chile on how the waste can be moved from Arica to Sweden. Such an agreement would receive a great deal of attention at the UN meeting as well as great support from organizations around the world that work for the protection of the environment and human rights. And Sweden would thereby show that we as a country take our international commitments on sustainable development and the key words for the UN meeting "our responsibility, our opportunities" seriously.
Secretary general, Amnesty International Sweden
Managing Director, Arica – Fundación para la democracia ambiental
Professor in environmental law, University of Stockholm
President, Solidarity Sweden-Latin America (Latinamerikagrupperna)
Managing Director, Mamitas del Plomo
Secretary general, The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (Naturskyddsföreningen)
Legal adviser, Swedwatch
This text was originally published in Svenska Dagbladet on the 30 of April 2022 and has been translated from Swedish.
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