Argentina, Uruguay pollution row reaches UN court

Argentina accused neighbouring Uruguay in the UN’s highest court Monday of reneging on a bilateral treaty when it authorised a paper mill that Buenos Aires says is now polluting a shared river.

The mill built by Finnish firm Botnia on the Uruguayan bank of the River Uruguay, was causing “irreversible” environmental damage, Argentina argued on the first day of three weeks of hearings before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“This mill discharges day after day a huge quantity of pollutants into the water and into the air,” Susana Cerutti, legal adviser to the Argentinian foreign ministry, argued before the panel of 15 judges.

“It is a bad mill in a bad place.”

Cerutti said the mill was erected in a densely populated area whose inhabitants used the river for fishing, leisure and tourism. They now had serious concerns for their health and had to deal with the “unbearable” smell of hydrogen sulphide being emitted from the mill.

“It smells like rotten eggs,” Cerutti said.

Since it started operating in November 2007, the mill has discharged 44 million cubic metres of effluent, she added.

“The pollution is starting to cause irreversible damage to the riverine eco-system.”

Argentina filed an application with the court in May 2006, accusing Uruguay of having unilaterally authorised the construction of the Botnia mill, as well as a second by Spanish company Ence, on the River Uruguay in “flagrant violation” of a 1975 treaty.

It said the treaty granted each country the right “to use the waters of the river within its jurisdiction,” but also upheld their duty to “preserve the aquatic environment and in particular to prevent its pollution”.

Botnia’s paper mill, representing an investment of some 688 million euros (one billion dollars), started operating in November 2007 and has an annual capacity of one million tonnes of paper pulp.

The mill, the largest ever erected on the banks of the River Uruguay, has a projected life span of 40 years, and “would never have been authorised in Europe”, said Cerutti.

Ence has changed its plans and sold its project, which is yet to be constructed at a site further away from the Argentinian border.

The ICJ, which considers disputes between nations, dismissed a bid by Argentina in July 2006 for an order suspending construction of the two mills.

In January 2007, it rejected an application by Uruguay for an order ending a blockade of a bridge across the river by Argentinian environmentalists that has been in place since 2006.

Uruguay will start presenting its case from next Monday.

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