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VICTOR GALEANO
QUINTERO - CHILE

The Quintero-Puchuncaví Bay is located in the Valparaíso Province in Chile and encompasses two municipalities -Quintero and Puchuncaví- with high levels of industrial pollution caused by the Ventanas Industrial Complex. 

Between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the industrialization of the Quintero-Puchuncaví Bay began, with fishing and agriculture as the main activities. There are currently a total of 19 polluting industrial facilities in the area, which are considered hazardous and occupy 2 km of beach terrain, including power stations, smelters, refineries, and chemical producers.  

“The first time was odd because I started to feel very sick. I began to lose balance and fell down, but I can’t recall anything else. The psychological treatment is no longer focused on pollution. My daughter is being treated because this led her to develop a psychological problem. She doesn’t like her body, she cries, she can’t wear a certain type of clothes, she cries frequently, she has trouble sleeping… She even stains the sheets with blood. To tell the truth, all these spots are injuries formed on her skin.”

In 1993, nearly thirty years after the beginning of the bay’s industrialization, the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture decreed the area as “saturated by pollution” due to sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM10).  

Nonetheless, this measure was ineffective in controlling pollution and industrial growth in the area, which is now one of the most polluted in the world.  

Acid rain, a by-product of pollution and power plant emissions, has affected the fertility of the soil to the point of scorching it: from 1964 to 2007, the area cultivated with cereals and tubers was reduced to the brink of disappearance.

“Seventeen hundred people were intoxicated, even a little more. There were higher outbreaks in different schools, especially in the ones located in the lower part of the municipality.
Adults also collapsed, but teenagers in the classroom were more prone to this problem. They could not move their limbs. Some had vomiting and headaches. But the most complex issue was the immobility of limbs or certain body parts. We had never experienced anything like this. It was a complicated situation for the entire population.”
Fourteen substances are breathed in Quintero and Puchuncaví, including heavy metals and toxic gases.

1- Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
2- Sulfuric acid (H2SO4)
3- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
4- Ozone (O3)
5- Carbon monoxide (CO)
6- Pollen and road dust
7- Lead (Pb)
8- Arsenic (As)
9- Mercury (Hg)
10- Copper (Cu)
11- Methyl chloroform (C2H3CI3)
12- Mercaptans Hydrocarbons
13- Toluene (C7H8)
14- Nitrobenzene (C6H5NO2). 

According to a study by the Catholic University and the Sustainable Chile Foundation, the inhabitants of areas with thermal power stations in the country, such as Tocopilla and Huasco, get sick up to four times more than the national average, with respiratory, cardiovascular and malignant tumors.
In 2014, 38,700 liters of oil were spilled in Quintero bay following a ruptured connection between a tanker unloading crude oil and the port terminal. Spills such as these continue today.
In August 2018, the National Petroleum Company (ENAP) imported a highly toxic crude oil called Iranian Heavy. Part of the cargo was transported to Enap’s storage tanks in Quintero bay, where an agent was applied to moderate its noxious fumes, but the outcome was not as expected.
The cargo unleashed a toxic cloud over the environment, which caused the intoxication of more than 2,300 people living in the bay.
“After I dropped her off at school, I remember I went to the market to buy some vegetables. Soon after I left her, the sirens and the fire alarm started blaring. You didn’t know what it was all about. I rushed back to my truck because I got scared and dizzy. I ran out of air. Then I went to pick up Ignacia and nothing had happened to her, but as days went by, the children were still intoxicated. The mothers still sent them to school with headaches and tummy aches, and they took them to the hospital, but the staff downplayed their symptoms. The hospital would say it was a headache or would give whatever diagnosis they wanted. A week later, Ignacia came home from school with a headache. She told me: “Mom, my head hurts.” I gave her some medicine for the headache, and she went to sleep. When she woke up, her pillow was full of blood and she had a nosebleed. The next day I sent her to school and she came home with a headache again. Then the same thing happened to her, and I paid attention to those two consecutive episodes and took her to the hospital. They told me it was a cephalea. They never told me we were dealing with an intoxication, that the air was causing all this. Months passed, and the government brought a field hospital. All the children harmed by the toxic cloud were taken there, and Ignacia began to undergo tests. It hurt her to walk. She was pale, she didn’t want to play with anyone. Ignacia was a hyperactive child, but from one day to the next, she didn’t want to play. She just wanted to stay in bed and sleep. She’s undergone several tests so far. They’re checking if there are thyroid problems, the doctors have been seeing her and she’s anemic. What we want is for them to tell us if our daughter was affected by heavy metals in her bloodstream.”
On August 21, 2018, more than 600 people, including children and adults from Quintero Bay, had their health affected by a toxic cloud. Vomiting blood, dizziness, headache, limb paralysis and skin sores were the most common symptoms. As the number of people affected grew over the days, there are currently 1,434 plaintiffs demanding justice.
“The Puchuncaví and Quintero commune has a high propensity for cancer. Here most people die of it, and very young people. If you go to the cemetery, you’ll notice it. The regulations here say that all companies and plants are safe, but that’s a lie. They dump things into the sea, cool the boilers with seawater and throw it back in, and the toxic gases are everywhere. In the evening, when it gets foggy, is when all the gases are released, and then in the morning, when we take the children to school or when we’re with our elders, you notice a terrible smell and have to go to work, take the children to school. The children get a headache. People don’t take it seriously. They say it’s a common ache, but pollution is what’s causing all these problems.”
“I didn’t want to be a mother because of the effects of pollution. I have lived 38 years in this place and it could have consequences for my son. You project yourself into a situation where you might have children… but you don’t want to leave your home. There comes a time when you say: “I’m going to give myself five more years or I’m leaving.” But my decision not to be a mother is based on the fear of how pollution could affect my body and my child because the effects can be transmitted over three generations. But I know about this because of the information I have, whereas there are people who live here ignoring that kind of knowledge. I considered these things because I was informed and participated in lectures about the effects that pollution could have on your body. It is not very common to get information and for people to be informed, but you see the need to get into the picture when you or your child got sick, but we’re aware to some extent of the long-term effects of this problem. You could say it’s an educational issue, but beyond that, people aren’t very good at learning about those impacts we’re dealing with.”

There have been multiple episodes of high pollutant concentrations. The last one occurred on June 9, 2022, and affected 115 people, mostly schoolchildren, forcing the closure of educational centers. 

In March 2012, the Oceana organization carried out a sampling of shellfish and crustaceans (clams, limpets, lobsters and crabs) at four different spots in the bay near the Ventanas Industrial Complex, in which they found copper, arsenic and cadmium contamination in 100% of the species analyzed.
Thanks to Cristian Ochoa, who opened the way for this story, to Olga Garri and Juan Carlos Silva, Katta Alonso, Andrea Lobos, Claudio López Sepúlveda, Rubén Bugueño Carranza, Ingrid González, Luis Antonio Fuenzalida, Ignacia Fuenzalida, Priscilla Pacheco, Bruno Puga, Macarena Carvajal Zamora, Isabela Puga, and Maritza Bobadilla for spending hours chatting and telling us their stories.

Victor Galeano

Documentalist, project director and co-founder of the investigative journalism media outlet Baudó Agencia Pública. Based in Colombia, where he works using photography as a visual language to speak about issues related to human rights, such as environment, memory, peace and conflict, gender and inclusion, and migratory crises. Course instructor in workshops about photography, autorial and documentary language, transmediality and new narrative forms. He has collaborated with media outlets such as Lensculture, El Malpensante Magazine, SOHO Magazine, Vice Colombia, Diagonal España, SDN.net USA, Fusión USA, Univision USA, among others. His work has been reviewed in international specialized photography platforms such as LensCulture and the Photographic Museum of Humanity. Winner of the 2016 CPB award, nominated for the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Award in the 2016 Image category, and 2022 Multimedia category, winner of the 2013 SOS Racism award Madrid, among other awards.