Uruguay, Argentina agree to cooperate on river

Published April 21, 2010

| Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina and Uruguay both professed neighborly affection, if not brotherly love, after a U.N. court delivered a long-awaited ruling that rejects Argentina's claim that an Uruguayan pulp mill pollutes their shared river.

Both sides said Tuesday's decision by the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands gave them what they need to resolve their differences, with Argentina taking heart from a part of the ruling that said Uruguay did not properly inform it about the project.

The countries vowed to work through a binational commission to protect the Rio Uruguay.

A key hurdle remains, however, with no indication of how Argentine President Cristina Fernandez will overcome it: Argentine activists are still blocking the main bridge across the river and are refusing to give up their fight.

The verdict cannot be appealed, but the activists said they won't accept it — raising the possibility of a violent confrontation if Argentine police have to intervene.

For more than three years, the activists have blocked traffic between Guayleguachu, Argentina, and Fray Bentos, Uruguay, where the $1.2 billion Botnia paper mill is located. At times they had the open support of Fernandez's predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner, who took the fight to the U.N. court demanding the factory be torn down.

The court said it found no conclusive evidence that the mill is pumping dangerous pollution into the river.

In a portion of the ruling welcomed by Argentina, the court said both South American countries "have a legal obligation" to work closely together in honoring their treaty requiring shared decision-making for river projects.

While saying Uruguay should have involved the river commission to inform Argentina of plans to build two pulp mills before authorizing construction, as called for in their 1975 treaty regulating the river's use, the court rejected Argentina's demands for more than a reprimand of Uruguay.

"Ordering the dismantling of the mill would not, in the view of the court, constitute an appropriate remedy," the court's vice president, Peter Tomka, said.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica made no immediate comment, in keeping with his effort to reduce passions and resolve the dispute. But his foreign minister, Luis Almagro, called the verdict a reaffirmation of international law.

"In environmental politics, Uruguay follows the most strict international standards," Almagro said.

Fernandez took a conciliatory stance, saying, "Surely both of our countries are going to pursue from now on a strong monitoring effort, a strong control."

"We have with Uruguay a common history, we have more than 300,000 Uruguayans living in Argentina, we have a deep feeling for Uruguay and I in particular have a very special affection for its president, Pepe, for Lucia his wife and surely this will enable us to build mechanisms of control," the Argentine president added.

The paper mill is far downstream along the Rio Uruguay, which runs for 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) from Brazil to the Rio de la Plata, and drains about 210,000 square miles (339,000 square kilometers) of farmland, an area larger than California and more than twice the size of Britain.

The farm runoff includes vast amounts of fertilizer, including nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and magnesium. It combines with heavy metals from factories — mostly on the Argentine side — and untreated sewage from most of the nearly 100 Argentine and Uruguayan municipalities near the river. Together, these effluents feed algae blooms, robbing the water of oxygen and contributing to skin diseases for people who come into contact with the water.

While the bridge blockade has damaged local economies and frustrated people who have to drive hundreds of miles (kilometers) out of their way to cross the river, the dispute has raised environmental consciousness and prompted governments in both nations to take action. Guayleguachu opened its sewage treatment plant in 2005, which sharply reduced coliform bacteria in the Rio Guayleguachu, which feeds the Rio Uruguay.

In part to compensate for any pollution from its mills, Uruguay plans similar treatment plants for its main river cities of Salto and Paysandu, while the sewage from Fray Bentos will soon be processed by the Botnia mill's own treatment facility, said Uruguay's lead counsel before the U.N. court, Paul Reichler.

The dispute also led to intensive monitoring of the river, both upstream and downstream from Botnia, starting two years before the plant opened. But neither country systematically tracks pollutants in the river to their sources, drawing criticism from environmental activists.

"This is a conflict that involves a lot of hypocrisy," said Juan Carlos Villalonga, campaign director for Greenpeace-Argentina. He said both countries need to strengthen land use rules in the watershed, where fast-growing eucalyptus trees promise a booming industry.

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Associated Press Writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Raul Garces in Montevideo and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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