Some 250 people have been affected by industrial gas leaks in the towns of Quintero and Puchuncaví, 100 km northwest of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and local authorities confirmed that 19 have been hospitalised. On August 23, the Interior Ministry’s National Emergency Office (ONEMI) declared a ‘Yellow Alert’ in the two towns and has increased monitoring activities to discover the source of the leaks.
ONEMI’s Valparaiso regional office said it had registered high levels of nitrobenzene, methyl chloroform and toluene in the two towns.
Valparaiso regional governor Jorge Martínez accused the state-controlled oil company ENAP of being responsible for the incident, claiming he had solid evidence that the emissions were from the ENAP refinery in Concon, 25 km south of Quintero.
The company has suspended maintenance work on two of its oil tanks in Quintero on the orders of the country’s environment ministry.
ENAP issued a statement denying responsibility for the gas leaks, saying the three compounds it said were involved in the incident – isobutane, nitrobenzene and methyl chloroform – were not stored, produced or used in ENAP’s facilities in Quintero.
The company said that, on top of its own monitoring efforts, it would appoint an independent environmental specialist to double check on emissions from its facilities in the region.
CODELCO, which has a large copper smelting plant between Quintero and Puchuncaví, also denied being the source of the gas leaks, saying: “We have not detected any change in our air pollution parameters”.
Valparaiso senator Francisco Chauhuán accused ENAP and CODELCO of being responsible for the gas leaks.
Schools in the affected areas were closed on August 27. Earlier, 30 pupils were evacuated from a Quintero secondary school and 16 were hospitalised.
ENAP said that if and when it was confirmed that that the company had no responsibility for the incident, it would not rule out legal action to repair the reputational damage inflicted by those making allegations against it.
The highly industrialised stretch of coast north of the port of Valparaiso has had a number of similar environmental scares in recent years. A school in Horcón near Puchuncaví was evacuated in June after gas caused vomiting and dizziness in some pupils and some 140 people were also evacuated from their homes nearby.
The La Greda school was moved twice in 2011 and 2012 away from the industrial zone after gas poisoning scares amongst its pupils and teachers. The first led to 33 adults and children suffering respiratory problems and headaches.
A report by activist website Eldesconcierto.com in 2014 said the Ventanas Industrial Complex between the communes of Puchuncaví and Quintero has high soil concentrations of sulphur dioxide and particulate material rich in copper, arsenic, lead, mercury and zinc.
It said that although emissions from the companies situated in the Complex met Chilean standards, these are far above the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and US standards.
The CODELCO copper plant has been linked to cases of heavy metal poisoning and the AES Gener thermal power station to mass fish die-offs in the sea, the report claims.
In addition, oil spills from tankers, including one of 38,000 litres from a tanker unloading at an ENAP terminal in 2014, have had a serious effect on the coastal and offshore environment.