"It was heart-rending. We talked to people in Valdivia who said they saw emaciated swans fall from the sky, landing on rooftops and cars," Curtis said. "They were so weak they were unable to carry their own weight."
Opened just upstream from the nature sanctuary in 2004, the CELCO plant was twice temporarily shut down earlier this year for environmental violations. Residents in Valdivia, 30 miles away, complained of noxious odors from the plant and the WWF mission found the facility's waste treatment, storage and disposal safeguards to be appalling. "Filter ashes, which can contain dioxins, and other potentially toxic waste were simply being dumped together in an open air site, where the wind can disperse them," Tecklin said.
The mission team, which prepared a report containing 25 key findings and recommendations, is now urgently calling upon the Chilean government and CELCO to take immediate remedial measures to protect the sanctuary and develop a plan to end pollution from the mill. Further research is also urgently needed to determine the full impact of the pollution on both the environment and human health.
A growing citizen's movement has kept case under the spotlight, as never before for an environmental issue in Chile. Although a series of lawsuits and other actions to force stronger action against the company have not so far succeeded, the case is now being heard by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights.
"The sanctuary has suffered so much damage that we won't know, without more research, how long it may take to restore it. The first priority now should be strict measures to reduce pollution at the source. At the same time, urgent human health and socio-economic impacts must be addressed. Thousands of families living in this area are heavily dependent on tourism and on fishing along the coast, where CELCO now plans to discharge liquid waste," Tecklin added.