Santiago (AFP) -
Workers at Chile's state mining company Codelco, the largest producer of copper in the world, launched an open- ended strike Wednesday to protest the closure of a foundry in one of the country's most polluted regions.
Police said they arrested 18 people as striking workers, waving Chilean flags and setting tires on fire, blocked entry to six mining facilities around the country. They did this mainly at the Ventanas foundry, which the government announced last week that it would shut down.
Union leaders said the strike had paralyzed Codelco altogether but Finance Minister Mario Marcel said it had 'altered' production but not shut it down.
The Copper Workers Federation said the strike will cost Codelco -- which produces around eight percent of the world's copper amounting to 10-15 percent of Chile's GDP -- $20 million a day. Marcel contested that figure.
The FTC represents around 14,000 Codelco workers and another 40,000 external contractors, according to Pantoja.
Unions described the closure of the Ventanas foundry, located around 140 kilometers west of the capital Santiago, as 'arbitrary,' and are demanding the government invests $54 million to bring the plant up to the highest environmental standards.
- 'Standards very low' -
Government spokeswoman Camila Vallejo said the government remains open to dialogue but that it was focused on 'a more sustainable model of development.'
'Our standards are very low and if we truly want to meet our environmental commitments we have to be guided by' World Health Organization standards, she added.
Codelco's decision comes after an incident on June 9 when 115 people, mostly school children, suffered sulphur dioxide poisoning released by heavy industry, provoking the closure of schools in the area.
It was the second such incident in a matter of just three days.
Sulphur dioxide is a classic air pollutant usually linked to the burning of fossil fuels.
Greenpeace described the area around the Ventanas plant as 'Chile's Chernobyl' following a serious incident in 2018 when around 600 people in Quintero and Puchuncavi received medical treatment for symptoms such as vomiting blood, headaches, dizziness, paralysis of their extremities and strange red marks on children's skin.
Last week, President Gabriel Boric hit out at Chile's record on polluting the environment.
'We don't want any more areas of (environmental) sacrifice,' he said.
'There are now hundreds of thousands of people who live in our country exposed to severe degradation of the environment that we have provoked or allowed and, as a Chilean, that makes me feel ashamed.'
Pollution accumulated in the area of Quintero and Puchuncavi, home to around 50,000 people, after the government decided in 1958 to convert it into an industrial center that now hosts four coal-fired power stations and oil and copper refineries.