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Poisoned paradise

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This year, the Kingdom of the Netherlands celebrates its 200th anniversary. Curacao is one of the pearls in the Kingdom’s crown, an island much loved by the Dutch as a holiday destination. What holidaymakers don’t know is that this paradise is the site of one of the Kingdom’s gravest environmental scandals.

Every year, the Isla oil refinery pumps millions of kilos of sulphur dioxide into the air. That’s more than all the Dutch refineries combined. The result is serious health issues for those living in the vicinity, and the closure of schools because of the unbearable stench and smoke. The governments of the Netherlands and Curacao are aware of the situation, so why don’t they intervene? ZEMBLA investigates: who is responsible for this disease-spreading factory and why aren’t measures being taken?

Shell built the refinery on Curacao in 1915. For decades, Shell was the island’s largest employer and the environmental impact was overlooked. In 1985, Shell sold the refinery to the Antilleans for the symbolic sum of one guilder, along with a legacy of horrendous environmental damage. Ever since, Curacao has leased the oil refinery to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Little has been done in the meantime to maintain or renovate the plant.

The refinery violates the internationally recognised emission standards of the World Health Organisation, the WHO, on a regular basis. “The levels measured here don’t occur anywhere else in the world, but absolutely nothing is done to address this dire situation”, says Peter van Leeuwen, chairman of the SMOC foundation, which campaigns for a clean environment on Curacao, that has battled against the pollution for years.

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