My wife and I are 6 months into an 18-month adventure in South America. Although we are roaming around a bit, most of our time is spent in Santiago, Chile, a city of 5 million nestled in a valley between the Andes to the east and coastal mountains to the west. Santiago is a modern city, with a highly educated population. It has lots of cars and lots of wood-burning fireplaces and stoves and the typical assortment of manufacturing and power generation facilities for a city of its size. In the winter, high pressure settles in over the valley and the fine particulate pollution builds up, creating serious public health emergencies in which driving is restricted, industrial activities are curtailed, and people are urged not to engage in strenuous activities outside.
In a sense I feel right at home, because along Utah´s Wasatch Front, winter inversions trap emissions from cars and wood burning to create grungy, unhealthy spikes in PM2.5 for days or even weeks at a time much like Santiago. In Utah the issue is addressed through the Clean Air Act, with Salt Lake City and the associated metropolitan areas designated as non-attainment areas for the short-term national ambient air quality standards for fine particulate matter and a comprehensive State Implementation Plan (SIP) developed by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality with thorough stakeholder involvement.
At the beginning of the SIP process, most of the public blamed the relatively few but highly visible industrial facilities (the refineries, the big Kennecott operations, etc.) as the principal culprits. However, as the stakeholder process evolved, public awareness shifted dramatically, with most Utahns now acknowledging that vehicle use and the aggregate effect of individual small sources are major contributors to the problem, and that individual personal choices with regard to vehicle use and lifestyle habits will be key to improving the wintertime air quality.
In Chile, the legal requirements to address winter inversion pollution are just as sophisticated and detailed as those under the U.S. Clean Air Act. The government has identified pretty much the same causes of the pollution as in Utah, i.e., cars, wood-burning, a variety of small businesses, and some but not many larger manufacturing sources. Also, Chilean law specifies a rulemaking process analogous to that in the U.S., with scientific studies, technical and economic analyses, and stakeholder consultation before finalizing an environmental rule. As a result, as in Utah, there is more public awareness in Chile of the role that individual choices play in environmental degradation which in turn leads to more of a shared sense of responsibility for dealing with it.
However, in my conversations with South American environmental lawyers outside of Chile about the legal systems for addressing environmental issues, I have found that they are not so much concerned about the substantive requirements on the books – those are not much different than those in the U.S. – but rather, are concerned that there are not always well-developed mechanisms for participation by the affected stakeholders in the development of environmental requirements.
ACOEL is reaching out to entities around the world to make available the considerable expertise of its members to address environmental challenges. In Latin America, ACOEL can play an important role in helping develop robust participatory processes which will yield great benefits in the development and enforcement of environmental requirements and the broader strengthening of participatory democratic institutions in this part of the world.