Swedish mining company in court over toxic waste exported to Chile in the 1980s

For years, the children of Arica were playing on the pile of toxic waste, which contained large amounts of arsenic and lead. On this picture, a woman from another region of Chile shows similar toxic waste on her hands. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
Some 800 people in Chile have sued the Swedish mining company Boliden for damages after a pile of toxic waste exported to Chile in the 1980s made people sick. The court case starts today.

In 1984 and 1985, 20,000 tons of toxic waste from Boliden’s smelting factory in Skellefteå, in northern Sweden, was shipped to Chile and the town of Arica. Boliden paid SEK 10 million to the Chilean company Promel, which said that they would extract arsenic and gold ore from the waste. But in reality, the waste was left open in a big black pile close to a residential area. For years, the children were even playing on the pile, which contained large amounts of arsenic and lead.

In the 1990s it emerged that many people in Arica became seriously ill, suffering from cancer, chronic coughing, and aching joints.

Some have already received compensation through Chilean lawsuits, which looked at the responsibility of Chilean authorities as well as the company Promel. (Promel went bust a few years after the deal with Boliden.)

Now, a district court in Skellefteå will rule on whether Boliden also had a responsibility for the 796 people who have jointly sued the company for SEK 100 million in damages. Some of them will be heard as witnesses via video-link during the trial, which is expected to go on until December.

“Without the actions of Boliden, there would never have been any problems in this town. People would not have died from uterine cancer or brain tumours,” said the lawyer Johan Öberg, who is representing the Chileans at the trial.

But Boliden claims they followed all the laws and rules that were in place at the time, and that Swedish as well as Chilean authorities knew about the export, which was not unusual then. The company says any damages should be paid by the Chilean authorities, which allowed a residential area close to the waste, as well as Promel, which was responsible for taking care of the waste, but did not do it.

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