Monday, November 27, 2006

Nueva Aldea Mill Tour: Part Two

NOTE: I first published this blog in November 2006 at I now publish it here in the interest of continuity.

Tom and I are at the Nueva Aldea pulp mill for a tour. Tom is a surfer from the United Kingdom who is an expert in large factories and their engineering. He's here on a round-the-world trip and offered his services to Save the Waves Coalition. We enter the executive offices of Nueva Aldea and are greeted by a public relations lady in a conference room dominated by a giant wooden table with fresh bottled water, coffee, tea and cookies. The floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a neighboring vineyard and a perfectly manicured lawn. Ivan the plant's public relations manager greets us with two engineers in tow: the engineer responsible for the mill's effluent discharge into the Itata River, and the engineer who oversees for the construction of the mill's 50-kilometer pipeline being built to the sea.

I immediately tell them that I am an environmental activist with Save the Waves and Proplaya and that we are totally against the construction of the pipeline to the sea. I recount our street protests in Santiago in front of Celco's offices, and of the protests in June in front of this very mill. They laugh nervously yet are relaxed, with only a little political tension in the air! I see a digital projector, a laptop and lots of fancy paper folders with well-lit glossy photos of trees and happy kids and brand-new industrial equipment. Next I warn them that we must keep the office presentation to a minimum and what we really want to do is go out "en terreno" and see the mill operations firsthand. After 20 minutes of slides and conversation we finally get our wish and they take us outside where we put on white hardhats, steel-toed boots and safety glasses. Ours and our hosts' hardhats are white; Tom notes that the workers doing the physical labor are all wearing blue or green hardhats.

During the office presentation I learn some useful details that I did not know before: this mill produces plywood from pine trees and construction-grade lumber from pine trees (mostly 2x4 and 4x4 beams), in addition to Kraft paper pulp from eucalyptus. Part of the solid waste produced in the manufacturing process is burned as biomass and used as energy - the mill is entirely energy efficient and sometimes sells excess electricity back to the grid. The rest of the solid waste is dumped at a nearby "certified" landfill. I'd like to analyse that waste for its ingredients, and see the conditions of the dump. The mill's main client for all of these products is China. The United States and Europe are other major buyers, including the world's largest manufacturer of wooden pallets for shipping and storage. In China, much of the lumber is used for manufacturing furniture which is then sold to the United States, Asia and Europe. The Kraft paper pulp is used to manufacture high-quality white paper products such as office paper, magazine paper, sanitary products and high-quality packaging.

Our first stop "en terreno" is a water treatment facility. It is giant: at least four city blocks of holding tanks, treatment tanks, concrete, giant steel pipes and other equipment. Stinking dark-brown foamy water is sent from the production facilities to this place where it passes through a cooling tower (to be cooled down from 35 degrees Celcius) and enters three treatment processes including filtering, settling and bacterial digestion of certain solids and chemicals. This plant reeks of sulfur and other chemicals that are used in the cleaning process. After 15 minutes my stomach aches and my eyes are beginning to burn. Our hosts tell us that the latest technology eliminates most of the odors associated with the production and waste treatment, but I'm definitely smelling some horrible smells.

As we follow the water treatment process the water gets cleaner and less stinky. At the end of the line, before the water goes into the 1.4-meter-diameter pipeline to the river, the water is clear and odorless. They offer us a cupful but we decline. I'm not very thirsty. I ask the plant's environmental manager if this water is similar to the water in a swimming pool. He smiles and says, yes, it is just like swimming pool water. I comment that one doesn't see fish, river life or sea lions swimming and living in swimming pool water. He agrees with me with a "yes, that's true...", but stumbles to add that such creatures "often live in water much dirtier." OK, Mr. Expert.

We then drive the length of the underground pipeline that's now dumping this water into the river. Or at least that's what they tell me, because I can't exactly see it under 10 feet of dirt. At the river's edge we encounter a giant hole in the ground with a grate over it and a ladder leading down into it, just like the grates you walk over on city sidewalks that ventilate the underground subway. At the bottom of this is a small river of water that then goes out into the middle of the river via another big pipe. The 50-km pipeline is being constructed from this point towards the ocean, on an old railroad right-of-way. 50-meter lengths of giant black HDPE pipe lie on the ground in perfect piles waiting for installation to lead to our ocean.

Stay tuned for our educated analysis of this visit and of the private and government reports on the water treatment facility and the pipeline!