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Colombian palm oil company under investigation for polluting rivers

  • Oro Rojo began extracting palm oil in 2013 and was granted three environmental permits by environmental authority Corporación Autónoma de Santander (CAS), two of which are currently under investigation.
  • Complaints have been filed alleging Oro Rojo discharged waste into nearby waterways.
  • According CAS, the company has also been fined for violations relating to air pollution.

In June 2016, Corporación Autónoma de Santander (CAS), one of the environmental authorities in the northeastern Colombian department of Santander, found toxic waste was flowing from a palm oil mill into Caño 41, a tributary that flows into the Magdalena River. The mill – which processes oil palm fruit into the popular vegetable oil – is owned by a company called Oro Rojo. Authorities had previously investigated similar complaints, concluding that the operations of Oro Rojo and similar companies “should be suspended,” but the suspension was never enacted.

Oro Rojo began extracting palm oil in 2013 and was, at the time, granted three environmental permits by CAS, two of which – wastewater discharge and water concession – are currently under investigation. According to Diana Triana, a member of CAS’s environment sub-directorate, the company has also been fined due to air pollution.

Local residents say that contamination of waterways feeding the Paredes wetland remain unresolved. The wetland is home to many species, such as the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), which is listed as threatened by the IUCN.

The Oro Rojo palm oil mill under construction in 2012. Image courtesy of Francisco Toro/Fedepalma/CIDPalmero Repository.

A powerful industry

Oro Rojo and another palm oil company, Indupalma, are both owned by Gutt-Haime group, a Colombian business empire currently led by entrepreneurs Daniel Haime Gutt and Moris Finvarb Haime. The group is principally known for its production of fats, edible oils, soaps and detergents, and works with brands such as Grasco and Danec in Colombia and Ecuador.

A year after it launched, Sabana de Torres in Santander, the municipality where the plant is located, became the second largest producer of crude palm oil in the country, rising from a production of 41,000 metric tons in 2013 to more than 72,000 metric tons in 2014.

However, the plant soon came under investigation for flouting environmental regulations. The plant had held a wastewater disposal permit for just under a year when residents of La Gómez, a rural area of Sabana de Torres that shares its name with the nearby La Gómez River, began to notice that cows and dogs were dying, and residents were becoming increasingly ill with skin rashes, vomiting and fever.

“Wastewater from the oil extraction process was deposited in large artificial lakes and, when they were full, the company would carelessly release it into Caño 41, which flows into La Gómez,” said James Murillo, executive director of environmental organization Cabildo Verde. “This discharge mainly happened when it rained, but people still noticed because the water turned dark and smelled bad.”

An oil palm plantation owned by Indupalma. Image from Indupalma’s Twitter feed.

Murillo said this was reported to CAS on several occasions. “But they would arrive a week, two weeks, sometimes up to three months later, when the water had already been washed away and, not surprisingly, they found nothing,” he said.

CAS environment officer Diana Triana said that the delayed response was due to an overworked agency. “We have tried to be there, and we have done all the tests available to us,” she said.

In early 2014, CAS arrived on the scene once more. “A runoff of muddy water could be seen being discharged into the channel that flows to La Gómez, confirming that Oro Rojo’s industrial wastewater treatment system had failed,” Elkin René Briceño, CAS’ Deputy Director of Environmental Management, told Vanguardia at the time.

This prompted the environmental agency to open its first administrative investigation into Oro Rojo on Mar. 5, 2014. However, critics say the investigation did not result in substantive change, and the next two years proceeded much as before.

CAS investigated again In May and June 2016, finding none of Sabana de Torres’s seven palm oil mills complied with environmental regulations. Some were operating with expired air emissions permits while others were not carrying out proper wastewater treatment and releasing polluted water into the environment.

At Oro Rojo, the CAS found that, once again, wastewater from the mill was ending up in waterways. However, it did not suspend its activities due to the number of jobs the mill provided, according to the agency’s director at the time, Flor María Rangel.

When asked why the company continued to dump while its permit was suspended and what CAS did to address this, Triana said that what happened was “an accident” and that the violation was “not judged in the same way” as an intentional one.

In the intervening half-decade CAS has not formally brought charges, nor issued sanctions against Oro Rojo for releasing contaminated water into Caño 41. Triana defended the decision, saying that the investigation has moved forward. In 2020 another visit was made, this time resulting in a new technical report stating that charges would be brought and that “other observations of non-compliance [were made] that would trigger an additional investigation for other charges,” Triana said.

Tras las Huellas de la Palma contacted Oro Rojo on several occasions via phone and email, but company representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

In the meantime, its mill continues to operate thanks to a work-around: contracting waste management company Soluxionar to dispose of its contaminated water. “When its discharge activity was suspended in 2014, Oro Rojo began passing its water to third parties,” Triana said.

However, environmental organization Cabildo Verde has also accused Soluxionar of polluting activities.

Passing the buck

In March 2013, Soluxionar requested a license from CAS for “specialized environmental services,” which included transport and disposal of contaminated palm oil and water. Initially, Soluxionar applied for a permit to discharge water into the Mojahuevos stream, another tributary of the La Gómez River. But in January 2014, it altered its application, explaining that the disposal would be made “into the ground by means of mist irrigation” for crops, according to government documents.

The Paredes wetland watershed.

In May 2015, Colombian news outlet El Tiempo published a story claiming water pollution by Soluxionar. The company’s director at the time, José Arias, told the outlet that the contamination occurred due to a “treatment machine overflow” in the middle of a heavy downpour during the rainy season.

On Apr. 24, 2020, Cabildo Verde submitted a complaint to CAS along with photographs claiming mismanagement of Soluxionar’s wastewater disposal was contaminating a waterway. In the complaint, Cabildo Verde claims that when the rainy season begins, Soluxionar officials “take the opportunity to discharge untreated wastewater into the surrounding area, which falls directly into the Mojahuevos stream.”

However, CAS said that they have been unable to confirm this allegation. “We have made several visits due to complaints filed against Soluxionar in recent years and we have not found evidence of dumping,” Triana said. James Murillo at Cabildo Verde said this lack of confirmation is because CAS takes weeks or even months to carry out an inspection after receiving a complaint.

Tras las Huellas de la Palma contacted Soluxionar for comment, but received no response.

The West Indian manatee (Trichechus Manatus). Image by Vincent Kneefel/WWF.

In 2014, a group of scientists analyzed the water quality at the preferred feeding and breeding sites of manatees in the Paredes wetland. They found that the most polluted water was coming from the La Gómez River.

A soon-to-be-published study found that there is a high rate of manatee deaths in the Paredes wetland, with seven found dead between 2010 and 2021, which is excessively high considering that only 28 manatees have been recorded in the area. Arévalo said that the latest post-mortem examinations show that something is affecting the health of the Paredes manatee population, but exactly what is not yet clear.

This has set alarm bells ringing. These large aquatic mammals are an umbrella species, their very existence ensuring the protection of other flora and fauna, such as river otters (Lontra longicaudis). In addition, biologist Arévalo explains that manatees are a sentinel species, meaning they have such a close relationship with the ecosystem in which they live that their health reflects what is going on around them.

“This is not down to a single industry. I know that the palm plantations around Paredes are enormous, but you also have to take into account that there is mining, cattle ranching, which uses agrochemicals, and agriculture, using pesticides and heavy metals. They all contribute,” said Katherine Arévalo, a biologist who took part in the research.

Arévalo said that a joint effort is needed between all industries in the region, and that authorities should enforce environmental regulations.

Air pollution too

When palm fiber and fruit husks serving as fuel are burned, the boiler produces an ash that can pollute the air. In order to mitigate pollution, palm oil producers are required to centrifuge the boiler ash, transfer it to large tanks, and then store it in a container. CAS also required Oro Rojo to submit two reports on their ash emissions every year.

 

Bunches of oil palm fruit await processing into oil. Image courtesy of the Colombian Ministry of Agriculture.

But government documents reveal Oro Rojo did not comply. In April 2016, CAS found the plant had been operating without a permit for at least 14 months and had only submitted two reports in 2013 and another in 2014, with none submitted in 2015 or 2016. In addition, the reports that were submitted indicated that Oro Rojo’s ash emissions exceeded permitted levels, according to a document published by CAS and that the “volume, handling and final disposal site” of the ash storage containers had not been recorded. There was no way of knowing how much ash Oro Rojo was emitting.

As a result of these findings, CAS launched an investigation and ordered that the boiler be shut down. Less than a year later, charges were brought against the plant and, on 1 January 2019, the environmental authority declared Oro Rojo liable for non-compliance of its air emissions permit. On 10 August 2020, CAS fined the extraction company 106 million pesos (about $27,400).

Triana said “they have now rectified the non-compliance issue because they once again have an air emissions permit.”

But investigations into Oro Rojo’s other alleged violations have yet to be resolved, including failure of the company to conduct a study to determine its impact on the aquifer as well as implement a system of water-monitoring devices.

In response to a formal request by Tras las Huellas de la Palma, CAS confirmed that legal proceedings into the matter have begun – eight years after complaints were made – and that the next step is to file charges against Oro Rojo. However, it did not say when this can be expected. In the meantime, Oro Rojo’s palm oil production continues at full speed.

 

Journalistic alliance Tras las Huellas de la Palma contacted Oro Rojo and Soluxionar on several occasions, but neither company had responded by the time of initial publication. 

Cover illustration by Kipu Visual for Mongabay Latam.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on November 9, 2021.

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