Thursday, May 19, 2005

Toxic air? A Campo Town battles to breathe

Brian Reyes reports

There are times in Puente Mayorga when it is hard to breathe. If there is a front line in the local battle for cleaner air, then this is it.

Some houses in this town, nestled into eastern side of the Campo de Gibraltar industrial complex, are literally within spitting distance of the Cepsa refinery. On a good day, the air is laced with pungent chemicals that dry the throat and irritate the eyes. On a bad day, the effects are multiplied to the point that life in Puente Mayorga is virtually unbearable. Residents here are convinced that the air they breathe is slowly killing them. They talk of a high incidence of cancer and infant mortality, of asthma and skin irritations, of relatives – young and old - in hospital, of too many attendances at too many funerals. Pretty much everyone, it seems, has a personal story to tell.

For two years, the residents of Puente Mayorga have been pointing the finger of blame at the refinery and the surrounding complex. For two years, they have been calling on the regional authorities in Andalucia to investigate their claims. For two years, they have been repeatedly dismissed, ignored, even insulted. But last week, all that changed.

Pollution Report

The latest study into air quality in the region carried out by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [CSIC] contained some disturbing findings.

Investigators found that air samples taken in and around the Campo de Gibraltar industrial complex registered unacceptably high levels of cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals. The levels were particularly acute in Puente Mayorga.

Their report recommended that an epidemiological study be carried to establish the impact on the health of the population in the area.

The findings were barely news to the residents of Puente Mayorga, or to local environmental campaigners on both sides of the border.

Last year, for example, the Bay Bucket Brigade used a primitive, yet scientifically proven and effective method of sampling to show that high levels of benzene were present in the air close to the refinery. Benzene, amongst other things, causes leukaemia.

At the time, the findings were rubbished by the oil industry. But last week, the CSIC seemed to back the bucket findings and also highlighted excess levels of benzene.

Unlike the Bay Bucket Brigade, that CSIC carries clout. It is Spain’s largest publicly funded scientific investigative body, and when it speaks, politicians and industry officials alike have to listen.

Within 24 hours of the report’s release, regional politicians from the Junta de Andalucia – the same ones who had for two years repeatedly snubbed the residents of Puente Mayorga - were promising the ‘imminent’ start of the epidemiological study.

Planning Strategies

For the residents of Puente Mayorga, this is a bitter-sweet success.

After two years of fighting, someone is finally paying attention. But the CSIC has also confirmed their worst fears.

At a meeting of environmental campaigners in Puente Mayorga last weekend, news of the epidemiological study was welcomed, yet greeted with caution. Such investigations take years to carry out. And if a link between air quality and poor health is indeed established, it could take years after that to address the issues.
“As a preventative measure, it’s not going to be much good,” said one resident there, who preferred not to be named.

At the meeting, environmentalists from both sides of the border discussed strategies to build on the momentum created by the CSIC’s report. They are conscious that they need to maintain and increase public awareness of the issues. But they also understand that they will have to gather more evidence, and that will have to take their battle to Madrid and to Brussels if they are to impact on the way the companies in the industrial complex go about their business.

The campaigners are not talking about closing down the industrial complex. They understand that it creates jobs and generates income, that it plays a central role in the region’s economy.

But despite industry claims to the contrary, they are convinced that the proper environmental standards are not being met, and they have vowed to do whatever it takes to prove that point and force a change. “The CSIC has opened up a lot of avenues for action,” concluded Raquel, one of the campaigners at the meeting.

Related Articles:

13 May 2005 - CSIC report confirms high levels of pollutants in the Bay of Gibraltar

18 May 2005 - IU express concern in Andalusian Parliament

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