Landfill in Colombia continues to pollute protected wetlands despite court-ordered clean-up

Landfill in Colombia continues to pollute protected wetlands despite court-ordered clean-up

  • A landfill near Barrancabermeja, in Santander, Colombia, has been leaking heavy metals and other pollutants into the water since 2015, according to a report from Global Witness.
  • The landfill sits in the middle of the San Silvestre wetlands, a 69,959-hectare (172,872-acre) protected area that serves as part of a regional jaguar corridor.
  • French utilities company Veolia took over the site in 2019 but has continued to store contaminated chemicals irresponsibly and operate heavy machinery in a buffer zone meant to prevent leakage into water sources, according to a Global Witness report.

The takeover of a polluting landfill in Colombia was supposed to help clean up the area for residents falling sick from exposure to toxic chemicals, but years later they say the problem hasn’t gone away and might even be worse.

The Patio Bonito landfill near Barrancabermeja, in the central state of Santander, was taken over in 2019 by French utilities company Veolia after years of mismanagement. The company promised to stop leakages that had led to respiratory issues and birth defects among residents, but so far it hass failed to implement real change, according to a Global Witness report.

“Whole series of fauna have fallen victim. We’ve seen mass deaths of fish, tortoises, manatees,” human rights defender Oscar Sampayo said in the report. “This is an exuberant natural world which is under attack.”

The landfill was built in 2015 in the middle of the San Silvestre wetlands, a 69,959-hectare (172,872-acre) protected area that serves as part of a regional jaguar corridor.

The site was originally operated by the Colombian company Rediba, which endured years of government investigations into improper waste management. The Ministry of Environment found that its containment pool of contaminated liquids was missing a lining filter, allowing toxins to leak into the Moncholo river and the San Silvestre wetlands.

Video also surfaced of company officials dumping contaminated liquids directly into the rivers, according to NGO San Silvestre Green.

A 2017 study by the local government found high levels of heavy metals in the sediment taken from the wetlands, including arsenic and mercury. The chemicals were believed to contribute to the abnormally high rates of respiratory illness, rash, birth defects and death among Patio Bonito residents.

The San Silvestre landfill. (Photo courtesy of Veolia)

That same year, Colombia’s constitutional court ruled that Rediba had violated residents’ rights to health and a healthy environment. It also said the company violated their right to live in “dignified conditions.” Although Rediba didn’t have to close the facility, the court did require it to address all environmental and public health issues.

When Rediba sold the landfill to French company Veolia in 2019, it also passed on the clean-up requirements imposed by the court. But Veolia hasn’t fixed them either, according to Global Witness and San Silvestre Green.

“Veolia is committing environmental infractions and causing very serious harm to the San Silvestre protected area,” Leonardo Granados, director of San Silvestre Green, said in Global Witness’ report.

Drone footage captured by San Silvestre Green revealed that the company is committing similar violations as Rediba. Contaminated chemicals are still being improperly stored at the landfill, resulting in overflow that pollutes local water bodies.

Veolia also appears to be operating machinery in a buffer zone around the landfill. As a result, sediment is making its way into nearby water sources.

Piles of trash continues to draw rats, vultures and other pests. And the water quality in the wetlands is still too poor for use by residents, forcing them to rely on bi-weekly deliveries of water.

The court ordered landfill operators to provide water to residents, according to the report. But they say the local government has carried out that responsibility instead of Veolia.

For its part, Veolia says it has addressed the public health and environmental issues at the landfill, citing the lack of additional government action as evidence that regulations are being met.

“The operational situation on the landfill, covered by the 2017 court’s ruling, has been normalized with no open investigation or pending matters with the environmental authorities as of today,” the company said in a comment to Global Witness.

Banner image: The San Silvestre landfill. (Photo courtesy of Global Witness)

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