Life source for agricultural economy or a regional rubbish dump?

Dr Ward was inspired by the previous work of Arribére and co-workers from the Barriloche Nuclear Research Institute who in 2002 completed an assessment of the chemical contamination of canal sediment, aquatic weeds, lichens and fish liver and muscle samples collected from the length of the Canal Grande and other water bodies in the area. One of the main objectives of the 2002 study was to determine the contamination status of a closed down chlor-alkali plant, and the possible distribution of mercury into the canal.

Whilst there is local concern over the historical discharge of mercury and other chemicals into the Canal Grande at Cinco Saltos in Argentina, there are many modern-day practices that provide hot-spots of chemical pollution throughout the Rio Negro Valle. Many of these waste disposal practices are regulated by municipal authorities and others are illegal, relating to human habits where it is better to “pollute someone else’s garden”. In some cases this means local communities depositing their waste (human effluent and domestic waste) into the local canal or stream at the bottom of their garden. Unfortunately, when the river or canal floods they are exposed to their own waste. Moreover this is the environment in which their children play. It is basically a matter of education. The problem is not mercury but the chemical and physical waste (paper, plastic, tins, etc) that everyone is constantly dumping into the environment of the Rio Negro Valle today.

The University of Surrey study was planned around the fact that the upper Rió Negro Valley region, whose economy is based on agriculture – mainly fruit production, is artificially irrigated through a system of channels fed by a main canal, the Canal Grande. The canal, which is sourced from the Neuquén River, passes through numerous towns. Fruit production and the associated processing agri-industry (cold storage plants, fruit packaging, fruit juice, and wine and cider production) are the predominating commercial activities in the Alte Valle. This has lead to the settlement and expansion of the local towns with the founding of associated secondary industries, such as, ceramics production, chemical industry, paper and battery factories and a disused chlor-alkali plant located in Cinco Saltos. This disused plant is an important part of the study due to the potential release of mercury, as large quantities of mercury were used historically as a liquid cathode in the chlor-alkali process. Arribére and co-workers reported elevated levels of mercury in the sediment of the Grande Canal, with a maximum level of 5.4 mg/kg Hg compared with background levels below 0.05 mg/kg Hg. These levels reduced with increasing distance from the disused factory to levels similar to the non-contaminated levels.

Dr Ward has an international reputation for having been involved in investigating the impact of many major chemical incidents and major pollution problems, including the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident, the Camelford water treatment works aluminium sulphate poisoning incident in Cornwall, England, and the impact of chemical works in Iceland, New Zealand, Greece, Scotland, Nigeria, Canada and Mexico. For the last 30 years he has been a major researcher in the field of chemical pollution from motorways and has been involved in many studies assessing the impact of metal contamination of roadside environments, especially storm water drainage systems and the accumulation of chemicals from motor vehicles in drainage pond and discharge stream sediments, aquatic plants and fish.

Dr Ward comments: “The University of Surrey project in the Alte Valle has provided an excellent opportunity to enable the local Rio Negro authorities to obtain chemical data using our internationally recognised expertise in the field of environmental and analytical chemistry research, such that they now have a more revealing picture of their local chemical pollution problems. Moreover, the study provided the opportunity for a postgraduate researcher at the University to carry out a project for his MSc where there were both challenges in analysing the samples for a range of chemical pollutants and in providing data for public evaluation. The Rio Negro newspaper released the report as an eight page supplement, the first time a scientific study has been published in this style. The supplement will be circulated to local schools to be used as an educational aid in addressing local ecological and chemical problems.”

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