Nearby residents greeted the ministers'decree joyfully. "We are happy," says Aura Lila Rocha de Silva, 50-year-old resident of Ciudad Sandino, which neighbors the plant. "It was time to close the chlorine plant because we suffered for years. We suffered with lung ailments, and many of us were sick. I had to go to the hospital two times. But now I think that's all ended."
Nicaraguan environmentalists hope the plant closure is the last chapter in a deadly story of hazardous technology transfer from the United States to Nicaragua, a story known in Managua as "El Caso Penwalt," after Pennwalt Corporation, the original plant operator.
Elpesa and Lake Managua
Elpesa, Nicaragua's only chlor-alkali plant, came on line in 1968. The government held a 48 percent share in the plant, Philadelphia-based Pennwalt (now Atochem) had a 40 percent ownership stake and the family of dictator Anastasio Somoza held a 12 percent share. The plant produced chlorine and caustic soda from salt using the mercury cell process, a technology licensed by the Stamford, Connecticut-based Olin Corporation, which operated a similar plant in Niagara Falls.
Almost immediately, Elpesa caused devastating pollution. As early as 1969, a study traced mercury pollution in Lake Managua to the plant. In the early 1980s, another study revealed that the company had discharged 40 tons of mercury into the lake over a 13-year period, making it one of the most polluted lakes in the world. (Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, is particularly dangerous in aquatic ecosystems because it accumulates in fish.)
In addition, Elpesa may have contaminated nearby Asosasca Lagoon, the drinking water source for much of Managua.
Elpesa workers have also been poisoned by mercury. In 1980, 37 percent of the workers showed evidence of mercury poisoning, including central nervous system damage. In the early 1980s, Elpesa's management improved plant conditions and worker exposure decreased, but not before at least eight workers had already suffered permanent neurological damage. Maria Eugenia Garcia, a spokesperson for the Nicaraguan Environmental Movement, says she believes that 80 of the 150 current Elpesa workers have been poisoned by mercury or chlorine.
Mercury was not the only pollution problem at Elpesa. Releases of chlorine gas were common. One such release forced the evacuation of 200 families and more than 15 hospitalizations in Ciudad Sandino.
Olin in Niagara
While Elpesa was pouring mercury into Lake Managua, U.S. citizens were finding out just what the chlorine industry had done to Niagara Falls.
In the late 1970s, Love Canal became a symbol of the toxic terror of modern industrial life, and Niagara residents discovered that Love Canal was only the most infamous of dozens of contaminated sites in the region. Well before mercury cells and chlorine production arrived at Pennwalt in Nicaragua, the chlorine industry had transformed Niagara Falls into one of the world's premier toxic hotspots.
Olin was part of the problem:
And local pollution was only one component of the havoc the chlorine industry wreaked. The end product of the industry - chlorine gas - is the worst poison of all. Chlorine is the building block of such infamous substances as dioxin, PCBs, DDT and ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons.
When combined with hydrocarbons, chlorine produces a class of chemicals called organochlorines that are used in pesticides, plastics, solvents and refrigerants. Organochlorines tend to be toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative, and they can cause reproductive failure, birth defects, impaired fetal and childhood development, cancer and neurological damage. Additionally, ultra-toxic dioxins can be formed when chlorine is used in pulp mills or waste water-treatment plants and when chlorinated chemicals are incinerated.
Olin stopped using mercury cells for chlorine production in Niagara Falls by 1990. In part this was a reaction to pressure that environmentalists have brought to bear against the producers of chlorinated products like CFCs, pulp bleach and certain solvents; the more fundamental reason, however, was the opening of a new chlor-alkali plant nearby. Niachlor, a joint venture of Olin and Du Pont, makes chlorine through the membrane process, a less-polluting technology than the mercury process used at the old Olin plant. Until fall 1991, the mercury cells just sat in Niagara.
Meanwhile, the fight over the Elpesa plant in Managua continued. Residents of Ciudad Sandino and other neighborhoods around the plant complained of respiratory ailments and other health problems, and called for the shutdown of the plant. It appeared they had won, when, on September 30, 1991, the government ordered the plant closed. Guia Ambientalista, a monthly environmental newsletter, proclaimed, "At last: Pennwalt will Close!!" and called the closure an "act of justice for our natural resources and the right of the public to a safe environment." The plant management responded that the permanent closure of the plant would not be necessary. They said the plant was undergoing modernization, though they did not explain what this "modernization" entailed.
In mid-November, details of the "modernization" surfaced when a local union official from Olin's Niagara plant informed Greenpeace that some of the mercury cells had been shipped to Nicaragua. Olin management confirmed that the parts had arrived in Managua and claimed that the equipment would be used as replacement parts to "upgrade" the plant. In mid-December, Elpesa officials denied that the parts had arrived, but admitted that the cells were intended for the "modernization" of the plant and insisted the plant would stay open. Managua residents readied themselves for the next phase of the Elpesa struggle.
As of December 19, the Nicaraguan government was split over the issue. The Ministry of Health and Environment favored shutting the plant, while the Ministry of the Economy and Development supported modernization. A committee was formed to study the issue, with the final decision to come from the Presidential Minister.
The committee never met. In the first days of the new year, NotiMex, the Mexican press agency, emphasized that the cells for the modernization were 30 years old and had been part of the pollution problem at the Niagara Falls plant. The Nicaraguan newspaper Barricada also revealed that, on November 19, chlorine gas had again leaked from the plant. Two days later, a 17-year-old resident of Ciudad Sandino who suffered from asthma died from chlorine inhalation. On January 7, the government ordered Elpesa permanently shut down.
Garcia of the Environmental Movement of Nicaragua called the decree "a great victory for the Nicaraguan environmental movement, ... a great step forward." But, she says, "There are still problems to resolve, for example the return of the mercury cells to their sender [at Olin's expense], the indemnification of the workers and residents who have health problems, help for the workers who will be unemployed and plans for the cleanup of the area which has been degraded by pollution."
Managua will be cleaner now, after 21 years of pollution from a technology brought from the United States. But this will not be the last attempt to export old and polluting equipment and technology to Latin America. Akzo America shut down its chlor- alkali plant in Alabama last summer due to the phase-out of ozone-destroying CFCs and carbon tetrachloride called for in the Montreal Protocol to Protect the Ozone Layer. According to the Chemical Marketing Reporter, a broker is now looking to sell Akzo's mercury cells to Mexico or Colombia. Those countries would do well to study "El Caso Penwalt."
- Kenny Bruno