Hundreds of angry wine growers are intensifying their protests against plans to build a pulp mill in the middle of Chile’s Itata wine region.

The growers stepped up their protests after it was revealed that a large pulp mill was set to open in June.

They fear air pollution and toxic liquid waste from the mill will be dumped in the Itata River, ruining grapes and endangering the health of the valley’s residents.

Two weeks ago, the last round of protests saw around 1,500 protesters, including grape growers and winemakers, fishermen, farmers, surfers, environmentalists and politicians at a rally organized by local Catholic priests.

The wine growers demanded the company building the plant ‘go from the country’. The clergymen urged respect for the environment.

Crosses symbolising life and death were placed on the Itata river bridge.

Chilean company Celco is behind the US$1.4b Nueva Aldea mill project which, since 1998, has overcome multiple and significant legal hurdles put in its way by its opponents.

The project is now at risk from seven different formal complaints currently being evaluated by Chile’s national environmental commission. Further judicial challenges are planned.

Itata winemakers claim they have good reason to be concerned. Another pulp mill, also owned by Celco, was temporarily closed by authorities in 2005 after toxic heavy metals polluted the river Cruces near the southern town of Valdivia.

This caused the mass migration of thousands of rare black-necked swans and their disappearance from the area.

One of the most vocal opponents to the Nueva Aldea project is Fernando Giner, owner of Casas de Giner, the largest winery in the valley and located only 600 meters from the mill.

‘I am worried. This is a Pandora’s box,’ Giner told decanter.com. ‘Some engineers say that no damage will be caused, but I don’t believe it.’

Giner, who recently invested more than US$5m in new winemaking facilities, said that assuring a clean environment for his 225ha (hectare) vineyard was essential.

Written by Jimmy Langman