Sewage at Puerto Guadal: Foul odors and contamination of Lake General Carrera

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Two decades after the construction of the sewage system and treatment plant, local leaders and residents report a history of decisions that have resulted in a system that has never worked properly and that causes foul odors and coastal contamination.  And despite several emergency measures implemented by local and regional authorities, there has been no definitive solution to the problem.  
By Patricio Segura
Here are some of the headlines from local press in recent years: "With emergency resources the sewage problem will be solved," July 2015; "The health authorities initiate a sanitary review of the sewage treatment plant," December 2015; "Tense debate among authorities over the state of the Puerto Guadal treatment plant," December 2015; "They confirm the presence of faecal coliforms in water adjacent to the treatment plant in Puerto Guadal," February 2016; "Chile Chico accuses health authorities of political manoeuvring over the water report," February 2016.
Like in the film "Groundhog Day," in which the protagonist is condemned to repeat the same day (2 February) over and over again, the inhabitants of Puerto Guadal have had to deal with constant problems in the operation of the sewage system and the treatment plant, built in the early 2000s.  At the time, through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) approved by a favorable Environmental Qualification Resolution (RCA) in 1999, this meant a solution for the local population, providing for a sewage treatment plant, something that 20 years ago was a milestone for the region.
It was almost a decade ago that construction problems and deficient operation, with the consequent pollution and bad smells, caused headlines and controversy among local and regional authorities, with a community waiting for solutions.  Although some actions have been taken in this time, such as the Regional Council's approval in 2018 of a project to improve the treatment plant, which was implemented in 2019 by Aguas Patagonia, the truth is that the problems have not ended.  Moreover, the pressure on the sewerage system has not stopped growing, as when in 2021 land was handed over to connect two new streets in the locality to the sewerage system.
Over the last few years, the situation has become untenable.  In the WhatsApp groups of Puerto Guadal the complaints pile up: "A lot of poo smell at the exit of Chile Chico, sewage on the coast," "we have had a treatment plant that does not work at 100%"; "that unbearable smell from the beach at the entrance of the town, it seems that the treatment plant does not work at all"; "the little school smells of poo when the plant is collapsed". Something not very different from what some residents said ten years ago: "We are neighbors in front of the plant, the smell is unbearable, there are dead fish in the stream, the drainage goes straight to the stream that goes straight to the lake". Something that, over time, in the opinion of part of the community has not changed much.
The history
In 1998, during the administration of Mayor (DC) Miguel Gatica Saigg, the EIS " Installation of the Puerto Guadal Sewage System in the Municipality of Chile Chico" was presented, which was contracted by Empresa de Servicios Sanitarios de Aysén EMSSA S.A. to the consultancy Figueiredo Ferraz Ltda.  The declaration was approved in 1999, contemplating 213 household connections, expandable to 363 in 2027.  In addition to the collectors, it contemplated the "construction of two sewage lifting plants, which would allow the water to be conveyed to the treatment plant. A suction well for each lifting plant will be located in a buried reinforced concrete chamber, measuring approximately 2 x 2.56 x 5.71 m3."  And the treatment plant would involve "activated sludge process with extended aeration in oxidation ditch mode, and disinfection by chlorination with calcium hypochlorite."
For the year 2000, an average annual sewage flow of 0.67 l/s was calculated, while by 2028, 1.36 l/s was envisaged.  And the sludge generated after the dewatering process would be 21 m3 in 2000 and 36 m3 in 2027.
On paper, it was a good project. However, various decisions along the way led to a project that is still causing serious problems today.
As Fernando Solar Mardónez, former regional councillor and former president of the N8 Neighbourhood Council, recalls, the project did not progress correctly from the beginning.    
From the moment the RCA was obtained in 1999, "a long pilgrimage began, with meetings, selection of beneficiary families and everything related to the technical part of the project.  That is a long period, and then they begin to generate applications from the beneficiaries and citizen participation," recalls Solar.  Once completed, the process of technical adaptation and the allocation of resources by the Neighborhood Improvement Program begins.  The technical unit would be the Municipality of Chile Chico.
The project began its execution in the mid-2000s, more than five years after the RCA was approved.  A 2006 document of the Regional Government of Aysén (PROPIR 2007) stated that "the projects of the Neighborhood Improvement Program, i.e. the "Sewage system construction and houses in Puerto Guadal and Puerto Ibáñez." are the only communal initiatives developed within the scope of the program, and have responded to the immediate need in the localities. The former, in particular, is in its testing stage, while the latter is nearing completion. Both, however, show a significant delay in the estimated completion date.  It was just under a decade since the EIS was approved and construction of the project was not yet fully completed.  In December 2004, Gatica stepped down and Luperciano Muñoz González (PPD) took over.
During its execution, the works underwent several modifications that changed the original initiative.  "The original project considered having energy support equipment, automation in the matter of the elevation plants with control from the plant, it had a drying court and a number of things that were seen as an economic adjustment.  Because always in the work something exceeds the original amount, what was budgeted for.  And they start to cut items," explains the former neighborhood leader.
"They didn't worry about whether they were going to hinder, or not facilitate, the operation of the plant.  And so it was executed.  The plants were not connected in this automation, so when they were clogged, the alarms went off.  And since there was no automatic operation, they had to be started manually," he says.
"There were several changes in the budget quota, on the number of toilets to be installed in the houses. They were increased to meet the quota that was requested. And on the other hand, there were reductions in other items," recalls the former vice-president of the Neighborhood Council N8, Alicia Vera Gatica.
The administration of the treatment plant corresponds to the Municipality of Chile Chico, but in the beginning it did not have a manager at the plant.  As a result, the lifting pumps burned out on several occasions, causing various problems, such as the collapse of the sewage system.   The leaders explain that a foreman was then hired, a local resident, who, although he is quite willing, does not necessarily have the technical knowledge required for such a critical task.  Otherwise, the problem would be structural rather than just operational.
Alicia Vera recalls that the problems began to be noticed during the first administration of Luperciano Muñoz, who was in charge of starting the project.  "At the beginning there was a little bug that indicated the operation of the pump: it warned when it needed maintenance and when it didn't. But that little bug was eliminated.  But that little bug was removed from the plant, and from then on the problems of contamination and uncontrolled waste began, the water came out very black," he recalls. 
At that time, in 2015, a solution began to be required "because the beach was being polluted, it was filling with algae, moss, the stream was unbreathable and there were neighbors who were complaining a lot at that time."
During that period, the system of drying pools was expanded, as the existing ones were not sufficient.   However, they are still not sufficient.  The beach that receives the treated water and used to be frequented by the community has been transformed, as a result of eutrophication (excess nutrients in water without sufficient runoff), into a marshy area.  A mini sacrifice zone.
However, Alicia Vera does not only hold the public apparatus responsible.  "There are also many consequences for what people throw away. I don't know why or how they do it, but they throw things into the sewage system, things that shouldn't be.  All this contributes to the pumps eventually collapsing. A few days ago the pumps collapsed again, which also causes them to burn."
The final solution
It was in December 2020 that the municipality, under the leadership of Ricardo Ibarra Valdebenito (DC), submitted to the Environmental Assessment Service a consultation of relevance to decide whether the sewerage improvement project and expansion of the sewage treatment system required to enter the Environmental Impact Assessment System (SEIA).  In February 2021, director Claudio Aguirre Ramírez decided that the expansion project did not require an environmental assessment. 
Since that same year, the project has been in the National Investment System (SNI), for an amount of just over $2 billion.  So far, it remains only in the profile stage with a RATE (Result of Technical Economic Analysis) of type FI (lack of information).
"The Municipality of Chile Chico is developing an integral solution for the sanitary sanitation of Puerto Guadal, in order to comply with the sectoral regulations in force and allow the use of the sewage system that does not generate inconveniences for the residents and visitors of the sector," the respective file explains.
Among the measures it is stated that "the sewage treatment capacity will be expanded with a new plant ... with its corresponding elevation chambers, valves for the removal of solids and accumulation, with a new drying tank and its respective discharge into the El Sauce estuary.” This, among other actions such as extending it to sectors not yet covered.
From the Ministry of Social Development, the technical analysis determined that it was necessary to "improve the wording in the definition of the problem based on the needs of the people and the service to be solved," in addition to "detailing equipment or equipment to be installed per item" among other scopes.
To date, and after three years, there is no record of any movement on the project.
During this time, the Health Ministry has carried out multiple inspections, initiating the corresponding investigations.  This was the origin of the dispute in 2015. The paradox is that as the sewerage system has an approving RCA (through Exempt Resolution 039 of 21 September 1999), it is subject to oversight by the Environmental Superintendency.  
However, in all these years - and in spite of the notoriety of the discussion and the various letters sent by residents - no inspection, provisional measures or sanctioning procedures have been carried out in the agency's Register of Auditable Units.
The current view of the residents
For the current president of the Neighborhood Council N8 of Puerto Guadal, Felipe Christensen Arteaga, the situation is critical and emerges constantly in the organization's meetings and assemblies.  "This issue is critical, as is the landfill that is closed and collapsed.  The town has been growing, many people arrive in summer and, as can be seen, there was an incorrect implementation with public resources, and those who live the consequences are the neighbours," he points out.
This is confirmed by the fact that, according to the relevance consultation in 2020, the discharge volume originally planned for 2028 was already reached in 2017.
"We are in the pre-election process and we know that all kinds of proposals will come in.  We hope that these will address the structural problems and needs of the population, related to the quality of life and, in particular, the quality of the water, since the estuaries where the supposedly treated sewage is discharged end up in the Lake General Carrera, which is the water that we all drink here," he explains.  In fact, the wetland that connects this watercourse with the lake is completely polluted and has affected not only the landscape but also the local vegetation and biodiversity.  And it seems that no authorities are taking action.
This is one of the dilemmas facing the locality today. A problem that has been dragging on for decades and has crossed several local and regional administrations.  Many of which, in election mode, between 2024 and 2025 will come to the village for a new opportunity.   
Many in the village hope that this time they will be clear about one of the challenges that should be a priority. 

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