Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Puerto Madryn in Argentina’s Patagonia every year to see whales, penguins and sea lions. But the city of 120,000 people does not live mainly from tourism, but from Aluar, the largest aluminum factory in Latin America. This company’s smokestacks never stop working.
For 30 years, a verbose 82-year-old mechanical engineer named Carlos Moreno has been claiming that more fluoride than allowed comes out of those pipes. “That’s why so many people get sick in Madryn,” he says. The Aluar plant faces the sea and is located in the north of Madryn, so when the wind blows to the south, people breathe what comes out of the smokestacks.
The evidence of the pollution that Carlos presented in 1997 to the provincial court was not enough, even though he presented reports prepared by Aluar itself. The reports are in a folder that Carlos Moreno still carries in a green leather briefcase everywhere he goes, as if they were his house keys or his wallet. The documents date from 1991 and in them, the company acknowledges that as the measuring device approached the factory, the presence of fluoride in the air increased. The company’s directors were acquitted and paid no fines. Since then, the figures for environmental impact measurements have not been publicly known.
Carlos studied mechanical engineering in La Plata, the capital city of Buenos Aires Province, and arrived in Madryn four decades ago to work at a company contracting with Aluar. “Before, because fluoride was used to make water potable, it wasn’t believed to be polluting. On the contrary, it was believed to be very good,” he said.
According to Carlos, he was fired because he started to question Aluar’s environmental impact. Since then fluoride has become his obsession. He commented on almost every YouTube video related to the company, he created a Facebook group about cancer in Madryn, he used the “banca del vecino” (“neighbor’s bench,” a mechanism for citizen participation) to denounce Aluar in the local parliament. He produced a radio program to report on the news of about case, he made T-shirts that say “No to fluoride” in big letters and he preaches in the central square of Madryn with megaphones and speakers. He seeks justice, but also revenge.
–Why do you do this despite being alone in the fight for so long?
“Because they left me in misery,” he says.
“El encanto de la mosca” (The Fly’s Charm) begins with the noise of Aluar’s turbines. The film was released this year by Octavio Comba, born in Madryn, and Lucía Levis Bilsky, from Buenos Aires. For now, it can only be seen in movie theaters or at festivals where it is screened. Mosca is the colloquial term for money in Argentina.
Carlos spoke several times. “Water fluoridation is a worldwide problem, but the beginning of the problem is aluminum and in Madryn we have the only aluminum factory in the country,” he said. “The problem is the electrolytic production of the Hall-Heroult process, they have to disguise the fluoride effects of that way of producing aluminum.
“To save the planet from climate change we have to reduce fluorinated gases in the stratosphere,” he concluded.
The host, president of the Namuncurá Foundation, Lautaro Merino, says that his organization provides food and education to hundreds of illiterate children and has a radio station that is one of the most listened to in the city, hence the success of the event for the presentation of the film.
Carlos’ denunciations began to have an impact when the radio station gave him airtime. Since then, says Lautaro, Aluar stopped making donations to the Namuncurá Foundation to buy food. “We had a workshop in order to identify the main concerns of the youth and when Aluar came out, we couldn’t refrain from saying something.”
–Were you worried about the lack of work?
“No, look, I grew up here and if you talked about Aluar, it was because your dad worked there. But for these new generations, Aluar is an environmental problem, and this is thanks to the courage of the few who are trying to put it on the agenda. The fact is that the entire province of Chubut has the same number of inhabitants as a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and we have many natural resources but we are poor, so younger generations no longer see Aluar as a hope. It has helped the city but to the detriment of our health and our landscape,” Lautaro says.
In the province of Chubut where Madryn is located, two large social mobilizations against mega-mining extractive projects were well known: the “No to the mine” in Esquel, and the “Chubutazo”, in December 2021, in Trelew, a few miles from Madryn. For Lautaro, what happened in the screening of El encanto de la mosca, “hopefully will be like what happened at the beginning with the neighborhood assemblies,” which gave rise to these mobilizations.
Fluorine is part of our lives. It is a dangerous substance, an irritating, pale yellowish to greenish gas that smells bad, but we almost never see it or feel it. It is the mineral that makes tooth enamel more resistant to bacteria every time we brush, but it is also the one that helps purify water, ignite rockets, produce antibiotics, anesthetize people, isolate electricity and make plasma televisions. The name fluorine comes from the fact that it helps other minerals, such as iron, to flow.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, fluoride does not cause cancer. But exposure to high levels in the air or in drinking water, causes alterations “in brain morphology and biochemistry, which affect the neurological development of individuals and, therefore, of functions related to cognitive processes, such as learning and memory,” according to several scientific studies.
In China, 16 million people exposed to fluoride air pollution from coal production showed symptoms of fluorosis. “Bones become fragile and brittle. In its most severe manifestations, skeletal fluorosis is very disabling: calcification of ligaments, loss of bone mass, and neurological problems arise due to spinal cord compression.”
Raul Montenegro is the director of the Environment Defense Foundation (FUNAM) and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Environmental Nobel. He explains that there are three main sources of fluoride pollution: aquifer, anthropogenic activities, and industrial discharge.
Water pollution is the most important in terms of the number of places where it occurs. In places where water is used for drinking, it occurs naturally due to the characteristics of the soil. In general, where there is fluoride, there is arsenic.
The use of fluoride in anthropogenic activities, which for Montenegro is the most serious type of pollution due to the lack of attention it receives, refers to water fluoridation or when fluoride is used, for example, in toothpastes “excessively and without much science behind it.” Industrial discharge is when a company discharges fluoride or nondomestic pollutants into the environment, as is the case of the factories producing PTFE materials that discharge wastewater into the rivers, or that of aluminum factories, such as Aluar, that emits huge amounts of pollutants into the air.
Montenegro emphasizes that “the effects are always multicausal. A person can get sick because they drink water polluted by one substance and breathe air polluted by another” and this complicates determining the impact of some activities in a linear way. “There is hardly ever a single source.”
–Did you receive specific information from Aluar?
“Yes, that is almost a one-man operation by engineer Moreno. But the very nature of aluminum production means there is a fluoride discharge and there is a risk,” says Montenegro. “It happens, as in the case of an energy company in Córdoba. Some internal sectors pressure to make this public, but they end up choosing between having to work with pollutants or not having jobs at all. Sometimes the labor unions, for example, prefer to continue working and be paid more for hazardous activities. Which means that sometimes the communities are involved in what is happening. It is as if they were saying ‘it is the risk that we have to pay to have a job.’ ”
–Why can’t we find specific data on this pollution?
“Because of the relationship between the government and businessmen. In general, companies exert pressure with the idea that if they are forced to increase controls, they will reduce personnel or investments.”
Aluar means “Argentine Aluminum” and has its origins in an earlier era of the country. It was founded in 1971, when Argentina felt like a world power, before the dictatorship that began in 1976 deindustrialized the country. Today Aluar produces almost half a million tons of aluminum per year, 70% of which is exported, and directly employs more than 2,000 people (and indirectly several thousand more). It has an average annual turnover of more than $1 billion.
The Madanes Quintanilla family, which also owns the Futaleufú hydroelectric power plant and the Fate tire factory, holds 72% of Aluar’s shares. Journalists Tomás Lukin and Santiago O’Donnell, reported in the book “Argenpapers” that the Madanes had “trusts and offshore companies in Cook Islands, Bahamas, Virgin Islands and Panama with connections to accounts in Switzerland.” According to Forbes, the Madanes’ fortune is at least $1.4 billion. That is, about $500 million more than the 2022 budget of the government of the province of Chubut, which is responsible for controlling the company.
In recent months I have written to fifteen different Aluar executives and employees:
I’m writing an article about possible fluoride contamination by Aluar. I have seen on the company’s website that they do air monitoring , but I have not been able to access the air monitoring figures. The reason for contacting you has to do with requesting access to the data and, if possible, an interview with you or another company representative who can provide the information and the company’s position on this issue.
Only María Elena Lizurume, Senior Community Relations Coordinator and daughter of former Governor José Luis Lizurume, responded:
In view of your interest in clarifying the issue, I can hereby inform and ratify that no fluoride contamination is caused by Aluar. In this regard, I inform you that Aluar duly complies with the current regulations on environmental control over air monitoring, reporting to the respective local (Secretariat of Ecology and Environmental Protection of the Municipality of Puerto Madryn), provincial (Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Chubut) and national (Federal Environmental Monitoring Network of the Ministry of the Environment of the Nation) authorities, where information is available in this regard. Without further ado, I greet you cordially.
When we pressed for specific data, company officials did not answer any further emails.
The Undersecretary of Control and Reconstitution of the Ministry of Environment of the Nation, Jorge Etcharrán, states that provincial and local governments are responsible for ensuring that the company is not polluting.
– But is it normal that the company that measures its own environmental impact, and that the data is not public?
“Normally the company must deliver its own reports although governments have the right and to a certain extent, the obligation to audit them,” Etcharrán says.
–You don’t have the information that the company claims to provide, and the provincial and local governments do not respond. Can’t the national authorities force them to inform?
“Just to give you an idea, during the pandemic I had to collect information on pathological waste by phone, because the information was not flowing. There are two limitations: on the one hand, this is a federal country, with clearly defined jurisdictions, and on the other hand, the environmental issue is relatively recent; provincial and local governments do not have the habit of reporting and controlling, despite the fact that in the last five years this has improved thanks to the adoption of national and international regulations such as the Escazu Agreement, and also because the environmental consequences are increasingly visible,” says Etcharrán.
–You cannot act on your own initiative in Aluar’s case, then?
“Correct. We act when there is an interjurisdictional conflict, or when there is a complaint. And in this case no one has reported anything to the National Ministry of the Environment.”
For Raúl Montenegro this way of managing the government “is primitive and quite noisy” and is related to the fact that “in Latin America in general, but in Argentina in particular, there is a general rule and that is that the goverment implicitly delegates environmental administration to social protests and resistance. Serious epidemiological studies, for example, are carried out only as a result of that pressure. Let us suppose in Aluar’s case, if the public pressure had been strong, suddenly there would have been an independent evaluation of the morbimortality linked to risk factors.”
If such a serious study were to be carried out, according to Montenegro, it would be necessary for the government to scan the biological and environmental samples, but still “in this case there is an obvious risk, and that risk should be enough for the plant not to be there.”
Julio, 40 years old, always wanted to work in Madryn. One day he came on vacation and took the opportunity to drop off his resumé. He worked at Aluar for two years in the quality and environmental control areas. According to his complaint, he was fired for questioning the manipulation of the environmental impact data recorded by the company. “No matter how much they pay me, I couldn’t play dumb.”
–How do they contaminate with fluoride?
“From the whole electrolysis process to make aluminum, with everything that is added, such as fluorite, the main waste product is fluoride,” Julio explains. “In the past, the tanks where this was done did not even have a lid, the people who worked there were 50 years old and looked like they were 80: infernal heat, electromagnetism. Later they put the lids on, but there is still a lack of control.”
–And how do they manipulate the information on pollution?
“They report what is best for them, they did not measure the type of particles that get into the lungs. I received incomplete forms, or they did not answer my mails because they are evidence. They measure eight places and select the four with the lowest levels. A supervisor came one day and told me not to provide high data because it was election time.”
– Is such pollution inevitable? If so, what is the cost of avoiding it?
“They don’t have to close the factory, they have money, they can invest, but we must be demanding. For example, there is only one wastewater treatment plant, and when it rains all that waste goes to the sea, and they do not clean it. There are oils from electrical transformers, mercury, toxic tar, machinery, all this is buried and will end up filtering into the groundwater and the water we consume.”
–And why isn’t it regularized?
“Because no one demands it. Aluar is a plant from the 70’s with a lot of old technology. There had to be a lawsuit at the time so that people would not go home with their clothes full of tar. When I reported it, I was cited by the municipal environmental officer. She made me enter without registering me at the front desk “to protect me” and she told me that all the complaints received by the municipal employees are leaked to the company. She confessed to me that it is complicated to audit Aluar.”
–What reason did they give you for firing you?
“That I was creating a bad working environment. ‘You can’t report the things you report,’ my boss told me. And I told him that it was my job to inform him about those things.”
Despite all this, Julio still hopes to return to work at Aluar “if one day the company regularizes its situation.” Because he could not find work in Madryn, he had to move to Buenos Aires. He says he has evidence he obtained from the company, but he does not want to reveal it because he signed confidentiality agreements. He presented the evidence to a prosecutor, he recalls, “but he did nothing and left me exposed.” He regretted speaking out. “People don’t care, nobody has the balls or the capacity to confront them. I did the right thing, but I cannot continue something that is not going to reach any end.”
Everything that happens in Puerto Madryn, from spotting penguins to watching documentaries, has a background buzz. It is most audible on Sunday mornings when there is barely any traffic. It is the city’s soundscape, as if somewhere far away and in a loop, an airplane is constantly landing. It’s the turbines of Aluar, a loud noise that not everyone wants to hear.
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