TRT World visited one of Argentina’s most contaminated cities, Palpala, where 70 years of poor or a non-existent environmental policy and rampant corruption have had a deadly impact on the local population.

You can tell you have arrived at the edge of the Palpala area in Argentina’s Jujuy province thanks to the toxic smell emanating from the city several kilometres away, even before the first traffic sign on National Route 9, also known as the Pan-American Route.

Until the late 1940s, Palpala was a small town near the capital of Jujuy province, San Salvador de Jujuy. 

But three-time president Juan Domingo Peron had major plans for the country and especially the north. With the construction of Altos Hornos Zapla, Argentina’s first metal foundry, this small town, its industry and its fate changed forever.

Foundry Aguilar sign. Like the tin roofs above the neighbours’ houses, this metal sign also has signs of corrosion, a product of the acid rain caused by the toxic fumes in the air.
Foundry Aguilar sign. Like the tin roofs above the neighbours’ houses, this metal sign also has signs of corrosion, a product of the acid rain caused by the toxic fumes in the air. (Ignacio Conese / )

Today Altos Hornos Zapla has almost disappeared, but the foundry cemented the path for many other industries, opening the city up to business in the 1980s.

Palpala, a city with a population of around 44,000 and growing, has more than 40 different types of heavy industry. 

Among them are 15 foundries of both metals and plastic - activities that should be strictly regulated because of the environmental and health dangers involved. 

Minera Santa Rita. This foundry works in the production of borates and sulphuric acid and was previously kicked out of the city of Salta due to it’s contaminating activities.
Minera Santa Rita. This foundry works in the production of borates and sulphuric acid and was previously kicked out of the city of Salta due to it’s contaminating activities. (Ignacio Conese / )

Instead, the city has maintained a policy of anything goes, even allowing industries that were kicked out of other cities over pollution to be established. One such case is Minera Santa Rita, a foundry that was expelled from the city of Salta because its neighbours were falling ill from the toxic fumes and toxic wastes from the borate production process.

Minera Aguilar, a subsidiary of Swiss Glencore, the world's biggest commodity trader and also one of the most controversial companies worldwide, has a lead foundry, next to a smaller battery recycling plant that also works with molten lead. 

The skin of a snake in between the scraps. Animals are sometimes found with severe chemical burns due to contact with these contaminating agents.
The skin of a snake in between the scraps. Animals are sometimes found with severe chemical burns due to contact with these contaminating agents. (Ignacio Conese / )

The waste from these activities is simply piled up in mountains of compacted soil mixed with plastics from car batteries, borates, sulphuric acid, and other unknown substances.

All of this then drains into the nearby river only a couple of hundred metres downhill and seeps into the air breathed by locals. 

A mountain of scraps from the foundries. From rocks, to metal to plastic, the waste simply piles up, is compacted and washed into the environment.
A mountain of scraps from the foundries. From rocks, to metal to plastic, the waste simply piles up, is compacted and washed into the environment. (Ignacio Conese / )

This contamination has been proven in a court of law, after 28 families from Palpala won a legal case against the local authorities for allowing the situation to occur. 

However, the compensation awarded was ridiculously low (the highest amount was for $500) and has still not been paid. 

The case proved the presence of large amounts of lead in the bloodstreams of these families, especially the children. 

A football field next to a foundry plant. Children are the most susceptible to lead contamination and carry the consequences for life.
A football field next to a foundry plant. Children are the most susceptible to lead contamination and carry the consequences for life. (Ignacio Conese / )

It also proved that as a result of the contamination, malformations, spontaneous abortions and stillbirths, breathing disorders and different types of cancers were far more common in the region compared to other nearby populations.

Soledad López de Arias (68) lives near Minera Aguilar’s foundry. She has lead in her blood as do her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. She travelled to Buenos Aires many times to denounce the situation in Palpala in different governmental offices in the early 2000s. Even though she was received and listened to, no real action was taken by the national authorities.
Soledad López de Arias (68) lives near Minera Aguilar’s foundry. She has lead in her blood as do her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. She travelled to Buenos Aires many times to denounce the situation in Palpala in different governmental offices in the early 2000s. Even though she was received and listened to, no real action was taken by the national authorities. (Ignacio Conese / )

As for regulations, all the local authorities did to improve the conditions was to recommend the companies build walls and fences around their installations, and better compact their waste. 

Walls and banana trees covering one of the foundry’s installations. These walls were built after the legal case that local authorities lost to neighbours. Now its activities are hidden from prying eyes but it continues the bad practices for which it was denounced.
Walls and banana trees covering one of the foundry’s installations. These walls were built after the legal case that local authorities lost to neighbours. Now its activities are hidden from prying eyes but it continues the bad practices for which it was denounced. (Ignacio Conese / )

Instead of compensation, what the families and activists endured was persecution. Some workers lost their jobs because someone in their family was involved in the claims and an activist was murdered in very strange circumstances.  

Patricia Vargas holding the portrait of her murdered brother, Orlando “Conejo” Vargas. When Patricia fell pregnant in 2005, her brother along with other friends started to protest against contamination for the first time in the city’s history. He was murdered in suspicious circumstances in a bar in 2010. Pamphlets that he made denouncing the contamination were found spread over his dead body. Nobody has been held responsible for his death and the investigation was closed.
Patricia Vargas holding the portrait of her murdered brother, Orlando “Conejo” Vargas. When Patricia fell pregnant in 2005, her brother along with other friends started to protest against contamination for the first time in the city’s history. He was murdered in suspicious circumstances in a bar in 2010. Pamphlets that he made denouncing the contamination were found spread over his dead body. Nobody has been held responsible for his death and the investigation was closed. (Ignacio Conese / )

Last month, the city woke up in shock because local foundry Minera Aguilar was closing, leaving 144 people out of work. 

While some activists see this as a victory, others with more experience say that it’s not the first time that the company has done this. 

Those apprehensive about the development say that even though the foundry is closing and kicking out 144 sick employees, it will re-start activities under another a shell name a couple of months later. When you pass by the doors of the foundry, it doesn’t seem to be a company that is going out of business.

And Palpala isn’t an inch closer to getting better.