CODELCO ordered to suspend operations after copper refinery poisons school children, the government fiddles the clocks to save electricity and neighbourly relations worsen as Bolivia demands sea debate.
Energy Minister Laurence Golborne this week denied government responsibility for the day-to-day running of Chile’s state-owned copper refinery at the Ventanas industrial park in the Valparaíso region, which has been found responsible for the contamination which forced the closure of a local school.
On 23 March, students and staff at the nearby Escuela La Greda suffered headaches and vomiting after inhaling what witnesses described as a blueish cloud over the school. The same day, the Minister of Health closed the school and the municipality of Puchuncaví reported the incident to regional health authorities.
Subsequent investigations found that the failure of equipment at the Ventanas copper smelting plant had led to the release of a toxic cloud of sulphur dioxide, which was then spread by the wind over surrounding districts.
CODELCO (the National Copper Corporation of Chile) was ordered to stop smelting at its Ventanas refinery – a decision which Golborne stressed was not taken lightly, given its implications for labour and the national economy. Copper remains the most important product of the Chilean economy and state-owned CODELCO is the world’s biggest copper producer and owns the planet’s largest known reserves.
The order was later overturned by the Court of Appeals, after CODELCO’s plans to mitigate the current situation and prevent further incidents were approved.
On Monday, the government confirmed that Chile will extend its period of daylight saving time in 2011, meaning that this year’s winter will see the shortest ‘horario de invierno’ since the measure was introduced in 1968. The move follows reports from the ministries of Health and Energy.
This year, clocks will be put back for just three and a half months, from 7 May to 20 August. Announcing the change, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter justified the measure on the grounds that it will both save energy and improve quality of life over the winter months.
‘Chileans consume less energy and less electricity during the daylight saving period. Secondly, there is much scientific evidence to suggest that crime rates and road traffic accidents are reduced if the sunset occurs later in the day’, Hinzpeter said.
Golborne has predicted that the pilot measure will see a 4% reduction in energy consumption, although Edison Román Matthei, the engineer behind the introduction of daylight saving in Chile, has warned that the energy-saving effect of prolonging the measure will dwindle as the months go on.
Health benefits have also been subject to debate. While some neurologists have identified positive effects of evening sunlight on mood, concentration and social interactions, other experts have claimed that the shift will mean many Chileans start their working day in darkness and that this can cause higher levels of seasonal depression.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to mount between Chile and its northern neighbour Bolivia over the question of Bolivia’s sea access, which it lost to Chile 132 years ago in the War of the Pacific. Last Wednesday, Evo Morales used his annual Day of the Sea speech to announce that his country was prepared to seek international tribunal action on the issue. Speaking in the border town of Charaña on Saturday, the Bolivian president criticised Chile’s response.
‘Those who are saying that it is impossible to debate, to discuss the return of sovereign sea access to Bolivia, don’t know their history’, Morales said.
In 1975, Generals Augusto Pinochet and Hugo Banzer, the then-leaders of Chile and Bolivia, met in Charaña to discuss a possible corridor for Bolivian sea access. The preliminary agreement reached between 1975 and 1976 was possibly the closest Bolivia has come to regaining a coastline.
The meeting, referenced by Morales in his speech, has become known as the ‘Charaña Embrace’. However, the initiative failed to gain the necessary support from Peru and, along with the subsequent rejection by La Paz of a territorial exchange proposed by Chile, precipitated the severing of diplomatic ties between the two nations in 1978.