Health issues arose among local inhabitants in 2004. Studies showed that pollution was also present in crops, domestic animals, water, and land.
In view of these increased public health issues, civil society movements were formed and sought to denounce pollution by the operations of the company, and demanded action from the government.
The Baterías de El Salvador S.A. Company, located at Sitio del Nińo, San Juan Opico, La Libertad, 30 Km from San Salvador, began operations in 1994 as a distributor of batteries for the domestic and regional market. In 2000, they began assembling batteries, using recycled material. Their operations consisted of manufacturing electrical batteries for vehicles, for which they set up a lead recycling plant to generate their own raw material.
Hazardous waste import
There was no other battery recycling facility in Central America, so the company began importing large volumes of used batteries and lead scrap to process in their plant. Lead-acid batteries are made with various alloys involving other metals, and use sulfuric acid to conduct electricity. These components are in the category of hazardous substances, both under the Basil Agreement and by National Legislation. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) granted the company its environmental permit under Resolution Nş 628 2003, setting the mandatory environmental conditions.
Non compliance with environmental standards impacts public health
Nevertheless, the environmental monitoring by that institution in March 2007 found non-compliance with at least 7 of the 13 environmental measures (CESTA, 2009). A report by the Salvadoran Appropriate Technology Center (CESTA) says that the first health issues arose among local inhabitants in 2004, among a semi-rural community with 1,339 homes, with a total approximate population of 7,000. The symptoms, above all, in children, were bodily aches, falling hair, nosebleeds and nausea (CESTA, 2009). Before then they had not been fully aware of the problem and the people unknowingly got used to the pollution. The first serious case was a little girl who came to a health center as an emergency. The company covered the costs of the medical treatment and chelation procedure , which is quite expensive (CESTA, 2009). When several more children had similar symptoms, the school principal asked the Health Center to test the schoolchildren and reported this situation to the Environmental Directorate of the community. Blood tests of 50 schoolchildren yielded alarming results, so they lodged a complaint with the authorities for the pollution, since many of them had health issues that could affect them for the rest of their lives. The pollution later began to become evident for the rest of the inhabitants, crops, domestic animals, water, and land.
Environmental Committee for Sitio del Ninó
In view of these increased public health issues, the Environmental Committee for Sitio del Nińo was organized. Leaders brought their first complaints about the pollution to public institutions and societal organizations. However, actions by the directors of this committee were unsatisfactory and gave rise to mistrust, as they were suspected of having contacted and reached agreements with the company management.
The "Unleaded Movement"
For this reason, in late 2006 the “Unleaded Movement” was created with community leadership, reactivating the motivation and social backing for the fight to close the factory. The Unleaded Movement made the problem public and submitted letters to the different government institutions to denounce pollution by the Baterías de El Salvador S.A. Company. Community information activities were also conducted. In 2007, the first march was stopped by a barricade of soldiers and police with barbed wire, according to the testimonies of a leader interviewed by CESTA (CESTA, 2009). However, this march achieved media coverage of the problem and other agencies joined forces, such as the Human Rights Defense Agency.
Baterías de El Salvador's answer
Company representatives have rejected these accusations. They claim that there is no pollution of the air or the wells around the factory and that they operate under the Law and within the parameters established by the Ministry of Environment. They have also denounced non-enforcement of institutional procedures, and rights under the Constitution and laws of El Salvador (La Pagina, 2013).
Government fines Baterías de El Salvador
Nevertheless, different investigations of environmental impacts led the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, in 2008, to fine Baterías de El Salvador US$ 93,000 dollars, but without ordering reparations of the environmental damage caused, pursuant to the Law on the Environment (1998) in Article 96 regarding the assessment of damages to the environment (CESTA, 2009).
Ongoing legal action
In 2010, after six years of investigation, the Attorney-General's Office (FGR) determined that the environmental damage caused by the former Baterías de El Salvador factory totaled approximately four billion dollars. This judgment was appealed and on 18 October 2012, the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Justice admitted an appeal against two companies and several government authorities regarding the lead pollution in the zone of San Juan Opico, La Libertad.