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Poisoned lives: five decades of pollution in Chile’s Quintero-Ventanas Bay

  • Three oil spills have affected the bay since 2014, with discharges exceeding 38,000 liters.
  • Government studies have found high levels of arsenic and mercury in seafood from the coast.
  • In 2011 more than 30 children and nine adults were struck ill by a chemical cloud that reached the school of La Greda located in Puchuncaví.

It’s 7 p.m. in the bay of Quintero, Valparaiso Province. With cuttlefish, hooks, coffee and food at the ready, the crew releases the moorings and sets out into the night to fish. Some boats leave with three sailors, others with four. They sail to the open sea because the bay’s biodiversity is gone.

Capturing cuttlefish (Sepiida) is hard work. In the middle of the night, with water above our ankles, we pulled mollusks into the boat. The boat is the only point of light in the ocean. There are no longer any cod, sharks, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, eel, yellowtail amberjack or hake. Cuttlefish has become the go-to species for the past two years.

“The damage is tremendous. Before, people could fish everything, but now if we ran out of cuttlefish, we would have nothing left,” Hugo Poblete, leader of the S24 fishing union in Quintero, told Mongabay.

In the past, the Quintero-Ventanas bay was very active and busy; now, only a few small stalls and shops remain. The restaurants are empty of diners and tourism has also decreased drastically. “The [oil] spills were the final nail in the coffin,” Poblete says.

On September 24, 2014, a ruptured connection between the tanker LR Mimosa and the Monobouy Terminal caused 38,700 liters [10,200 gallons] of oil to spill into the ocean, according to a report by the Chilean Maritime Authority. This was just the first of a string of spills. The second came in August 2015, while the tanker Doña Carmela topped up fuel. On that occasion, about 500 liters [132 gallons] fell into the ocean. The latest spill took place in May of this year when the ship Ikaros began leaking slurry oil after a hosepipe detached.

The oil spill that occurred in the Quintero Bay in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of NGO Oceana
The oil spill that occurred in the Quintero Bay in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of NGO Oceana

The National Petroleum Company (ENAP) immediately took responsibility in public statements. However, activists have accused ENAP of disseminating inaccurate information about the scope of the 2014 emergency. “ENAP management must take responsibility for the utter lack of seriousness in its estimate of liters spilled. They have twice given false information to reduce the public outcry created by this serious incident,” said Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation and advocacy organization.

However, the oil is not the only problem.

This is the state of one of the companies’ pipes. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.
This is the state of one of the companies’ pipes. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.


The Ventanas Industrial Park, at the border of the Puchuncaví and Quintero communes, was founded in 1961 as part of a government drive for “productive development.” A copper smelter was the main project in the area. Since the establishment of the industrial area, pollution has steadily intensified. “The industrial field grew without regulation. There is a huge mess at the bay. They only have brought smoke and disease,” said Poblete, the fishing union leader.

The soil was the first to die, followed by plants—flowers and trees native to the region, which has historically been a rich producer of beans, lentils, peas and wheat. “20 years ago the soil was very fertile. You could find ground water only six meters [20 feet] below the surface. Nowadays, you can only find it 12 or even at 25 meters deep,” a villager told Mongabay.

In the Ventanas Bay there are no traces of the fishing boom years. Now, there is only silence. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.
In the Ventanas Bay there are no traces of the fishing boom years. Now, there is only silence. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.

Acid rain, caused by the acids present in the atmosphere due to emissions from power plants, burned the land. Between 1964 and 2007, the area cultivated with cereals and tubers was reduced by 99 percent. Only ash remains.

Today there are 14 industries operating on the coast, including copper smelters, cement plants, dry bulk ports, copper concentrators and four thermoelectric plants fueled by coal and petroleum coke (a cheap but highly carcinogenic residue derived from cracking processes).

Ventanas Bay was transformed from a summer tourist destination into a reservoir of chemical waste. There are no tourists on the beach, just a few teenagers that lie on sand darkened by coal.


Nowadays, a haul of between 3,000 and 4,000 kilos [6,600 to 8,800 pounds] of cuttlefish is considered successful. Each cuttlefish weighs on average 50 kilos [110 pounds] depending on the season and they are found around 100 meters [300 feet] deep.

When the oil spills started, fishers came together and created the S24 fishing union and raised the environmental flag. However, their efforts have not been strong enough to improve the situation.

The city of Ventanas is surrounded by industry, and the pollution is in the air, land and water. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.
The city of Ventanas is surrounded by industry, and the pollution is in the air, land and water. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.

“The vast majority of people do not complain because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Some people end up working for the [petroleum] company. The boats are no longer used to fish; instead, they are used for transporting cargo,” a worker told Mongabay.


When companies arrived in Ventanas, they promised progress, employment and a better quality of life. In the beginning, the community did see some progress. The industrial park provided steady employment for many residents throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, leading to an unprecedented population explosion, explained several area residents. However, until this day, the areas adjacent to the industrial park do not have the necessary infrastructure to support that change. Some parts of Ventanas do not even have drinking water or sewage systems.

In 1993, the Ministry of Agriculture declared Puchuncaví and Quintero a “saturated contamination zone” by sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM10), but this did not prevent the industrial park from continuing its dangerous expansion.

Emergency events due to contamination multiplied: coal ash wastewater, toxic clouds, heavy metals in food. The full consequences are still not clear and authorities have not demonstrated the will to find answers.

“They haven’t invested a single dollar in improving the air. The Superintendence for the Environment (SMA) operates too slowly. They took three years to address the complaints against AES Gener [a multinational with thermoelectric projects]. Companies say they do not violate regulations, but that is only because those regulations are very permissive,” said Andrés León, an activist of Dunas de Ritoque — an NGO that works to preserve and enhance the environment in the area of Quintero and Puchuncaví.


Sixty-year-old Carlos Vega defines himself as a man with the sea in his genes. His father and grandfather were scuba divers back when the ocean’s clear water offered a view of the abundant marine wealth that fed the region. He too became a fisherman and diver—part of a past he now recalls with nostalgia and deep sorrow.

Vega has witnessed how companies have gradually pushed the community into a corner, undermining their economic activity and destroying their sense of community. Ventanas Bay is inactive. A few motorized skiffs lie on the sand and there are no boats on the beach.

A group of artisanal fishers in Quintero show their disapproval of industrial fishing. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.
A group of artisanal fishers in Quintero show their disapproval of industrial fishing. Photo: Courtesy Carlos Vega.

Jaime Durán, also a diver, explained how things went: “First came the restrictions. We had to take care of the resources. Crops were contaminated. Then they created the marine management areas. Some believed in them and went along with it. The others left.” Many of those who once worked in the fishing industry are now doing completely different jobs.

People who worked alongside each other for decades now do not want to see each other’s faces. Distrust and suspicion fill the air. “Today we know that there is also corruption. They have us fighting amongst ourselves for money and projects. We are angry as dogs. What other choice do we have!” Durán told Mongabay.


By the year 2006, Puchuncaví and Quintero were two of the poorest communities in the country, and pollution contributed to a vicious cycle of insecurity: local economies are disrupted by domestic exploitation that destroys natural resources, then the fishing tradition perishes slowly, and men of the sea become men of industry.

The scenery after the 2014 oil spill in Quintero Bay. Photo: Courtesy of NGO Dunas de Ritoque.
The scenery after the 2014 oil spill in Quintero Bay. Photo: Courtesy of NGO Dunas de Ritoque.

Most of the locals suffer health problems. Respiratory illnesses, irritation of the respiratory tract, asphyxia, dizziness and headaches increased. According to Dr. Juan Carlos Ríos, a specialist at the Toxicologic Information Center of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, chronic exposure to pollutants has long-term effects. “Lead in small doses can cause cognitive impairment in children and decrease their intellectual capacity. Exposure to sulfur dioxide (SO2) can cause irritation of the respiratory tract and, in large amounts, can lead to symptoms of pneumonia or pulmonary edema,” he says.

In 2011, a dramatic episode caused a stir nationwide: 33 children and nine adults from the La Greda school in Puchuncaví were sickened by a chemical cloud that caused coughing, nausea, fainting, vomiting and abdominal pain. That same year, a report requested by the undersecretary of education — verified by the Chilean Center for Investigative Journalism and Information (CIPER) — showed high levels of lead, cadmium, nickel and chromium in the area’s 14 schools. This was linked to production processes at the Codelco copper refinery.

A report by the Chilean Congress’ Chamber of Deputies confirms that the management areas intended for small-scale fishing also have high levels of mercury and lead. According to a complaint filed by the NGO Dunas de Ritoque, a 2015 report of the Fisheries Development Institute (IFOP) showed that levels of arsenic were 23 times the standard set by the Chilean Sanitary Code, also known as the Food Law. Crabs (Homalaspis plana and Cancer setosus) had an average of 24.1 and 57.58 milligrams per kilo, respectively. The health code calls for a maximum of 2 mg/kg.

According to Ríos, the information is not accurate: “The IFOP presented studies on the arsenic present in seafood, not on inorganic arsenic, which is highly carcinogenic. It is necessary to be accurate in scientific reports to responsibly interpret the results.”


Between 2008 and 2014, there were more than 50 cases of coal ash wastewater on the bay, without companies taking responsibility. “Companies and state authorities should assume the responsibility,” Carlos Vega told Mongabay.

When asked if he would like to return to the sea with his colleagues, Vega responds: “It’s what I’ve always wanted, but money has driven us apart. We will never have what we had years ago. This model caused a problem for artisanal fishing. Today we are poorer.”

Meanwhile, Hugo Poblete said views the current situation as part of a long-term fight: “We’re tired of the inconsistencies. They tell us the future of artisanal fisheries is in the management areas, but in reality, they are full of heavy metals. We now understand that this issue is political and we are just workers. The environmental problem is a result of the economic system: extractive capitalism that generates quick profits at any cost. So we have to fight against this.” The strength of the S24 fishing union lies in the organization of the workers and their link with the territory; that is the only way they will be able to face pollution and trawling, another of their greatest enemies.

Mobilization of the S24 fishing union in Quintero Bay. Photo: Courtesy Hugo Poblete.

It’s 7 p.m. and Vega greets the last of his neighbors returning from buying bread. The evening light illuminates the gray industrial chimneys. The streets are empty. “One time AES Gener began delivering baskets of goods to the community. We told them it was an insult to our dignity. Fishers have never been beggars, and we will never be. We are hardworking people, and because of that, we will not die.”

To present an official version, Mongabay Latam tried to contact some of the companies involved in these pollution events. However, we were unable to contact their representatives.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on September 26, 2016.

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