August 25, 2006

Argentina moves to clean up its dirtiest river

By Juan Bustamante

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - A government cleanup
scheme has inspired new hope for the 5 million people living in
Argentina's Matanza-Riachuelo river basin, where raw sewage,
industrial waste and empty promises have created a toxic

The plan, expected to be launched next week, responds to a
Supreme Court decision demanding government action, 13 years
after a former president vowed to make the Riachuelo river that
runs through Buenos Aires safe for swimming and fishing.

Today, it is still stinky, sludgy and clogged with trash.
Precarious shacks line its filthy shores.

"The Riachuelo generates a hub of sickness, a hub of
insecurity and it cripples commercial development," said
Alfredo Alberti, head of the neighborhood association of La
Boca, a gritty but touristic area bordered by the channel.

Although cleanup efforts have failed in the past, activists
are optimistic because of the Supreme Court's intervention and
the fact that Argentina has attacked the environmental safety
of two pulp mills being built along a shared river in Uruguay.

Eduardo Mondino, the nation's public advocate, said the
government "discovered" Argentina's pollution problems after it
challenged the Uruguay pulp mills on contamination grounds.

"External and internal circumstances have put environmental
policies in the forefront and made the Riachuelo an unavoidable
issue. So I think we'll see progress made," Mondino said.

President Nestor Kirchner has increased the clout of his
environment secretariat and put a long-time activist, Romina
Picolotti, at its helm last month.

Picolotti said detoxifying the Riachuelo is a top priority,
but it would be "scientific insanity" to give a timeline.

"The Riachuelo has not only swallowed boats, it has
swallowed programs and government officials. People are tired
of empty promises," Picolotti told Reuters in an interview
earlier this month.


The Matanza-Riachuelo river basin is home to more than 10
percent of Argentina's total population. The public advocate's
office has said heavy metals such as lead, chrome and mercury
pollute the water, soil and air, and may cause chronic health

A lawsuit by neighborhood groups led the Supreme Court in
June to order the federal, provincial and municipal governments
and 44 companies to clean up the Riachuelo, citing people's
constitutional right to a healthy and clean environment.

The government has yet to formally release details of its
cleanup plan, but elements of it have been widely leaked in
media reports citing government officials.

According to the reports, the plan includes the eventual
relocation of some companies from a petrochemical hub and
strict controls on remaining plants. More than 3,500 industries
operate in the river basin.

The petrochemical hub is home to the "flammable slum,"
which grew up above a toxic dump. Half of the children there
are reported to have lead poisoning, along with respiratory and
dermatological problems.

Media reports said some of the families living there will
be relocated under the government plan, which includes the
declaration of an "environmental emergency" in the area.
Picolotti said work to cut pollution in the Riachuelo should
begin in October.

(Additional reporting by Hilary Burke and Lucas Bergman)