In wake of Osorno health emergency in Chile, SUEZ is served notice to amend vigilance plan

09/07/2020
Press release
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Four organizations have today written to Bertrand Camus, SUEZ CEO, to ask him to provide details of the company’s planregarding its activities in Chile, where the multinational has a water-supply market share greater than 43%. Any failure to respond to this formal notice and to introduce appropriate measures will potentially be followed up with legal action before French courts. In July 2019, the inhabitants of Osorno were deprived of water for ten days and a health warning issued due to contamination of the drinking-water supply following a further operational incident at ESSAL, controlled bySUEZ. This followed ongoing malfunctions, instances of negligence, and failures, which had been repeatedly signaled by the Chilean inspection bodies, who had previously referred to an “increased risk” arising from these operational irregularities.

Four NGOs have now served formal notice on Suez that it must comply with the French Law on Corporate Duty of Vigilance of 27 March 2017. They call on the company to take the necessary measures to respond to repeated failures and illegal actions in its provision of a drinking-water supply to Osorno, and to prevent another health emergency arising in the city or any other settlement in Chile, where ESSAL and other companies controlled by the French group operate.

« We demand that SUEZ guarantee the communities it is committed to serving access to proper, safe water. Since the abrupt privatization of public drinking-water services during the Pinochet dictatorship, the quality of the water supplied to Chile’s population has continued to decline, while multinationals and their Chilean branches have continued to make generous profits. »

Jose Aylwin of Observatorio ciudadano

If SUEZ fails to put forward adequate measures within the next three months, our organizations will sue the French multinational, so that it will be instructed – under threat of sanctions if necessary – to put measures in place to avoid any new health emergency arising from the negligent behavior of its controlled entities in Chile.

On 10 July 2019, 2000 liters of oil were released at the Caipulli drinking-water treatment plant operated by the Suez subsidiary in the city of Osorno. The plant’s water source was contaminated with hydrocarbons, thereby affecting the entire water supply for 49,000 households, equivalent to 140,500 inhabitants (97.9% of the city’s population). The contamination also reached two water courses – the Rahue and Damas rivers.

The water supply was cut off for more than ten days, during which time the inhabitants of Osorno as well as establishments providing essential services to the city, such as hospitals, health centers, dialysis service and seniors’ residential care homes, were deprived of their drinking-water supply, prompting a major health crisis. On 12 July 2019, a health emergency was officially declared. No post-hoc epidemiological study was conducted to assess the number of victims.

During this crisis period, the health emergency grew worse because of the delayed and incomplete installation of alternative water-supply points that should have been immediately put in place by ESSAL. In addition, the water supplied was insufficient and of poor quality. Water-supply services were not fully restored until 21 July 2019, and the health emergency had to be extended until 31 August 2019.

Ricardo Becerra from the Local Asociation Red Ambiental Ciudadana de Osorno affirmed "The citizens of Osorno have the right to a regular service of quality drinking water, like every human being. It is their right, as well as the right to full redress for the damage caused to their health and the ecosystem. Given the repeated failures of ESSAL, we appeal to the parent company, SUEZ, to take the necessary measures"

These grave human rights abuses are due fundamentally to ESSAL’s lack of preventive and remedial measures, even though, since 2018, the Superintendencia de Servicios Sanitarios (SISS), the public body responsible for inspecting this type of service in Chile, has raised the alarm over the many infrastructure irregularities, judging these an “increased risk”. It has also imposed 360 fines on the company over the past five years.

« We hereby formally notify SUEZ of our demand that it should publish a new vigilance plan that includes detailed and adequate measures to mitigate and prevent the risk of human rights abuses, particularly the right to good health, water and a healthy environment, as well as a mechanism for monitoring the effective implementation of these measures. »

Clemence Bectarte, coordinator of FIDH Legal Action Group.

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