The coast of Chile is drowning in a sea of liquefied natural gas

“The Miracle of Chile”. This is the term used by Milton Friedman, the leading exponent of the so-called “Chicago school of economics” and Nobel Prize winner for economics, to indicate the free market turn experienced in the Andean country in the 80s and 90s under the government of General Pinochet. A unique case among the countries of the Latin American continent. But what remains of the Chilean miracle today? Deregulation of economic and financial activities and a complete privatization of the economy, including the pension, health and university systems. Not to mention water. In fact, Chile is currently the only country in the world whose constitution enshrines the principle that water is a private resource in the hands of large multinationals, among which the Italian Enel stands out.

LNG terminal Quintero, Chile. Photo© Alessandra Cristina/ReCommon

The aftermath of this economic model is clearly visible in Quintero, a coastal municipality in the central region of Valparaíso. Together with the neighboring municipalities of Ventanas and Puchuncaví, Quintero Bay is one of Chile’s main industrial ports. Thanks to its mild climate, this area was once an important holiday resort for the Chilean bourgeoisie, but in the last 50 years it has been transformed into “the largest industrial park in Latin America, going from a tourist area to a sacrifice zone,” as Hugo Poblete, spokesman for the local fishermen’s union, tells us. From the first industries that were established in the area in 1961 to the present day, the industrial cordon of Quintero has a concentration of 19 companies within 3 kilometers of coastline. The reference sectors are mainly copper, oil, coal-fired thermoelectric and gas.

The concentration of these activities results in an alarming level of pollution, as reported by María José De Los Angeles Díaz, marine biologist and coordinator of a research project on Quintero Bay. “In the bay, we detected abnormal values of lead on the surface as well as lead and cadmium in marine species. Fecal bacteria are present in the water. This is worrying considering that there is a lack of drinking water and a very weak sanitation system in the bay. Through sensors that we have installed in the area, both in schools and parks, we detect that the higher the level of air pollution, the more cases of children affected by illness.”

Children and adolescents are in fact the most vulnerable group and those who are most affected by the presence of heavy industry in the area. “In 2018, we recorded about 1800 cases of intoxicated children and in recent years the rate of children with pathologies and autism has been growing. This dramatic situation corresponds to a local health system in pieces, consisting of a small hospital, without ambulances and operating rooms,” Maria Araya, president of the advisory council of the Quintero hospital, tells us. Maria carries with her the scars of this tragedy, having lost her daughter to cancer at the age of 21. The local population is very afraid of young people, as can be seen from the words of Ruth Vaccaro, a resident of Quintero: “We live in an area of health emergency. Our children are not allowed to go out and play outside the house because of air pollution. Very often they can’t even go to school. In the name of the economy, we have sacrificed their right to life, to play and to study.”

The community of a sacrifice zone saturated and stripped to the bone demands that no new industrial activity be established on the territory. An appeal that, however, seems to fall on deaf ears. The last frontier is, in fact, that of liquefied natural gas (LNG), represented by the Quintero LNG terminal, for the reception, storage and liquefaction of gas. The plant was built in 2009, following the decision of the then Bachelet government to respond to the gas import crisis via pipeline due to the breakdown of political relations with Argentina. Right from the start, the Italian imprint on the project was clearly visible. One of the original shareholders is Endesa, Spain’s leading electricity company acquired by Enel in 2007. The Italian energy multinational has a lot of prominence in Chile, since Endesa played a leading role in the energy sector in the country. Enel Chile is led by Herman Chadwick Piñera, cousin of former Chairman Sebastian Piñera, who was in office between 2010 and 2014 and 2018 and 2002. In the bay of Quintero, a few meters behind the LNG plant, Enel has owned a thermoelectric plant since 2009 and since 2012 this has been powered only by gas. What’s more, we are talking about a business financed with Italian money. Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s leading bank, has been present since its inception among the credit institutions that have provided and continue to provide financial support to the terminal. Last year, the Turin-based bank participated in a $700 million deal to finance the purchase of 80% of Quintero LNG’s shares by Belgian gas company Fluxys and U.S. investment fund EIG.

Concerns regarding the present and future of Quintero LNG are a hot topic among community members. On the first front, in April 2022 during some repairs work a fire hit the terminal pier, causing a column of smoke visible from several points on the coast. The population did not receive any clarification on the matter, only a concise press release from the company, which stated that the causes of the fire are unknown and that there is no risk of consequent explosions.

On the future, the topic of debate is the installation, at the Quintero LNG terminal, of an electrolysis plant for the generation of hydrogen. According to the company’s statement, Chile has already signed several agreements to promote the export of green hydrogen, for example with the Belgian ports of Antwerp/Zeebrugge, Germany, the port of Rotterdam and South Korea, and aims to become one of the world’s top three players in the field of this energy source. An ambitious statement, considering that the production of green hydrogen requires a huge amount of water, and that Chile has a serious drought problem, linked to climate change but not only. “There is an important institutional responsibility in the management of water. There is a lot of talk about green hydrogen, but in reality, there are no institutional conditions for it to develop in a sustainable way,” says Anahì Urquiza, an anthropologist specializing in environmental issues at the University of Chile in Santiago.

What is the institutional solution now? A desalination plant, also in the Quintero area, intended not to serve the local community, but to prolong the life of industries. On this stretch of the Chilean coast, there seems to be no end to the construction of plants. For the local population, who despite the many signs saying “non-bathing area” take advantage of the beginning of the spring season to take a first dip, the Chilean miracle risks drowning in a sea of liquefied gas.

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