Codelco, the largest copper producer in the world, has closed its Ventanas smelter after six decades of highly polluting activity. The smelter’s closure follows years of protests and a promise by the government of leftist Gabriel Boric to cancel part of Codelco’s operation in Quintero and Puchuncaví, an industrial bay of 50,000 inhabitants 140 km west of Santiago, known as the “Chilean Chernobyl.” For decades, the plant expelled tons of harmful particles through its chimney, causing respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, high levels of infant mortality, unacceptable cancer risks in children and a lower life expectancy for inhabitants of Quintero and Puchuncaví.
During a ceremony, the operations manager of Codelco Ventanas, Pablo Bohler, gave the order to “permanently stop the ‘Teniente’ converter furnace.” The closure of Ventanas smelter led to “feelings of sadness” for Francisco Urrutia, operator of Codelco, who worked there for 13 years, but also “certainty and positivity” about relocating to where he comes from.
According to the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, who visited Chile in May, the closure of Ventanas smelter is necessary in order to protect the health and wellbeing of Quintero and Puchuncaví inhabitants. “Codelco is leading the transformations that this industrial pole needs to ensure a friendly coexistence between the industrial activity and the inhabitants,” said the president of the Codelco board of directors, Máximo Pacheco, at the ceremony.
With the closure of the smelter, part of the 766 workers will be relocated and others will leave their posts prior to an agreement with the state company. Although control of the plant has been transferred since 2005, Codelco will continue refining copper, which is a less polluting activity. “We have fought for this for years, we are here, and we will continue fighting because this does not end here,” said Sabina Vergara, a preschool teacher, in the context of a protest that brought together a hundred demonstrators outside the plant.