UK waste firm accused of failing to address local impact of Colombia landfill

Campaigners have accused Veolia of shirking its duty over devastation being cased by the Yerbabuena landfill in Colombia.

Rebecca Speare-Cole
Tuesday 30 May 2023 13:39 BST
The Veolia-owned landfill site, with Patio Bonito village situated just next to it, near Barrancabermeja, Colombia (Global Witness)
The Veolia-owned landfill site, with Patio Bonito village situated just next to it, near Barrancabermeja, Colombia (Global Witness)

A UK waste company been accused of failing to address environmental and health impacts of a “toxic” landfill site it owns in Colombia.

Campaigners from environmental group Global Witness said Veolia, which runs landfills and waste collection services in the UK, is shirking its duty over devastation being cased by the Yerbabuena landfill which it owns, near Patio Bonito, Colombia.

The landfill, which began operating in 2015 in the San Silvestre wetlands, has been linked to historic reports of contamination in the water and food sources of the nearby Patio Bonito community, including “significant values” of heavy metals like arsenic and mercury found in sediment samples in 2017.

There have also been reports of the young displaying a series of novel health afflictions, including babies dying at birth and children suffering from “Job” – a rare skin condition that leaves scarring and boils.

Veolia, which bought the landfill site from the Colombian firm Rediba in 2019, operates landfills and waste services across the world, including in the UK.

A Colombian court ruled in 2017 that the Yerbabuena landfill’s operation would be conditional on the owner building an aqueduct to supply clean water to the community and lessen its impact on the local environment.

But Patio Bonito residents and local environmentalists told Global Witness that the impacts from the landfill remain as devastating as ever in 2023 – even after Veolia’s 2019 takeover.

One resident told campaigners that her family’s health has suffered, adding: “I can’t see any improvement at all. Everything is the same.”

Meanwhile, local environmental group San Silvestre Green said Veolia has to date failed to completely fulfil the court order as leachates from the site continue to overflow into surrounding water sources, contaminating the wetlands.

Any aqueduct is also yet to be built and the local authorities are forced to pay for water to be delivered to the community by tanker trucks, according to Global Witness.

Veolia has disputed the leachate claims, saying that “there is no leachate discharge in the water sources from the landfill, that all leachate is treated within the plant, and that the company conducts a variety of thorough ongoing testing at the site (the results of which comply with international standards)”.

The company also said it takes on the arrangement of tanker-supplied water to the community and that the historic reporting of medical defects was neither peer-reviewed official research nor corroborated.

Elsewhere, Veolia has been accused of showing disregard for particular threats from paramilitary groups against a local environmental defender.

Global Witness said locals are scared to speak out over fears of violent repercussions, with environmental defenders Oscar Sampayo and Dr Yeside Blanco receiving death threats from paramilitary groups a month after they signed legal action against Veolia in 2020.

Both Dr Blanco and Mr Sampayo’s names were published in a pamphlet by a paramilitary group calling themselves the “Aguilas Negras”, which warned 18 local activists that they had 24 hours to leave the territory or would be declared a military target, Global Witness said.

It added that there is no evidence to suggest that Veolia or its predecessor commissioned extrajudicial threats or violence.

Veolia said that Dr Blanco was “invited by Veolia Colombia to visit the (site) in order to see the operations, but has never responded to our proposal”.

The campaigners are calling on the waste company to address the full range of harms suffered by the community and threats made against the defenders who have spoken out against the landfill.

Shruti Suresh, land and environmental defenders campaign lead at Global Witness, said: “Veolia is showing a disregard for the risks faced by land and environmental defenders who are struggling for justice for the harms that have been caused by this toxic landfill in the San Silvestre wetlands.

“Such a lacklustre attitude is concerning as Veolia’s operation is sited in an area which is well-known to be a high risk for attacks against defenders and indeed Global Witness research has found that Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders.

“The devastating effects of the landfill on the lives of the local community can no longer be ignored.”

Beate Beller, corporate accountability campaigner at Global Witness, said: “For too long, big companies have been shying away from their responsibility to people and planet while making huge profits.

“We’ve shown time and time again that, left to their own devices, they do a poor job of addressing human suffering and environmental devastation associated with their business activities.”

In a statement, Veolia said: “Veolia Colombia strongly denies any allegations of disregarding the environmental law in its operations in the San Silvestre Environmental Technology Park.

“On the contrary the company has reinforced and modernised the treatment process to bring the site to highest environmental standards which has received top international certifications.”

The company added that it “conducts its operations with respect for human rights and in full compliance with environmental regulations”.

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