Pulp Fact: A meditation on surfing in the waste stream

Words and principle photography by: Will Henry

Surfing Chile

I sit atop a rocky sea stack under cold, overcast skies, gaze out over a glassy rivermouth lineup, and contemplate my options. Head-high waves peel flawlessly down a well-formed sandbar without a surfer in sight. Under normal circumstances I would be in a pre-surf frenzy, scrambling to get into my wetsuit and hit the water. But today I can’t ignore the commotion behind me, no matter how hard I try to focus my attention on the surf. Usually I’m more concerned with unknown dangers that I might encounter when pioneering a new spot, like rocks, sharks, or hostile locals. Yet none of these factors are currently giving me cause for worry. The waves aren’t big or dangerous, there is no feeding frenzy, and there’s not a local in sight, but my stomach is turning as though I’m heading out for a virgin session at 30-foot Mavericks.

The reason for my hesitation is not one I’m familiar with, although the surf crew during the 1980s in Humboldt County, California, could certainly relate. Behind me looms a massive industrial pulp mill, one of many in this part of Chile, all of which are notorious for spewing thousands of gallons of toxic waste into the ocean. This particular mill, which occupies the
entire beachfront in the city of Constitución, has towering stacks that bellow a foul stench, and a pipeline that spews mysteriously brown liquid less than a cutback away. But damn, the waves sure are good.

Surfing Chile

I remember a story I was told some years ago by a guy who surfed this place. About 10 years ago, one of the first gringo ex-pats to settle in the area had driven down to this spot. The waves were perfect, and as usual there were no surfers around. The mill’s toxicity was already notorious, and local surfers avoided it like the plague. But, as he described it, the waves were just too good to resist. Finally, against his best judgment, he paddled out. He caught a few great waves, but within minutes grew dizzy. After 20 minutes he paddled for shore, overwhelmed by nausea. By the time he reached the beach, he was retching.

His Chilean friends told him afterwards that he was crazy to even attempt it. “If you had seen how good it was,” he replied, “you would have surfed it, too.” No doubt many of us would
have made the same leap of faith, or perhaps you’d call it surf-induced stupidity. And here I am, the next idiot in line, ready to ignore common sense and be a human lab rat.

Constitución is known as “Constipolución” by many surfers, but this is not the only pulp mill polluting the waters of Chile. A company known as CELCO owns the majority of the nation’s pulp processing plants, including this one. CELCO has been responsible for numerous environmental disasters over the past five years.

In 2005 the Rio Cruces watershed was devastated by an “accident” that killed thousands of rare black-neck swans after a spill from a CELCO mill flooded a Wetlands Reserve. Then in 2007 the company was responsible for another toxic disaster that killed millions of fish in the Mataquito River and estuary, once a healthy and productive fishery (in fact, the very same river that lets out here, where I am currently considering a potential toxic overdose). Thousands of local fishermen and their families were out of work with no way to put food on the table. Most worrisome is CELCO’s new facility, the largest pulp mill in Chile, at Nueva Aldea. Its pipeline, which is nearly complete, will pump waste directly into the sea near some of the world’s best left pointbreaks, just to the south of where I am now nervously biting my nails.

Surfing Chile

There is a growing grassroots movement against CELCO’s practices, led by an alliance of fishermen, surfers, and environmental groups. In Mehuin, Mapuche fishermen have twice blocked attempts by CELCO to construct a waste pipeline into the sea near their village. Using their wits and a great deal of bravado, their small flotilla of fishing boats thwarted
both a scientific vessel and an armed naval warship escort, breaking the ships’ windows with slingshots and sinking their zodiacs with spears. But one wonders how long the little guys can hold out against such a behemoth of an industry. CELCO’s ties run deep within the Chilean government.

The pulp industry is essentially in the business of turning trees into paper. Trees are clearcut from huge monoculture plantations (which have replaced many of the native forests), trucked to the mill, ground into sawdust, then bleached and processed to create the raw material from which paper is made. The bleaching process is generally the most harmful to the environment, but the tree farms themselves are hugely detrimental to wildlife, causing massive erosion, loss of habitat for many creatures, and negative impacts on rivers, notably the build up of stream-choking silt. Pulp-mill effluent is even worse, a brew of carcinogenic chemicals that contaminates the water, which then enters the food chain and poisons fish, wildlife, and eventually makes its way into the food on our dinner tables.

I contemplate all these horrid facts as I watch another perfect set roll down the sandbar and into the river. My companion, Josh Berry, who has been watching from the beach, gives the thumbs up. “What the hell,” I think. “I’m here to learn, so I might as well sample the filth firsthand.” Or at least that’s my lame excuse. As I’m suiting up, a man walks by and eyes us suspiciously. He waves his finger. “I wouldn’t swim in that water,” he says. Then he holds his nose.

Surfing Chile

So we paddle out anyway and the water is smells foul. It has the slippery consistency of soap with strange bubbles floating on the surface – but we manage to exit the water after a fun session and without any strange tumorous growths on our foreheads or other bodily disfigurations. I feel a little queasy, but Josh feels okay. He does point out, however, “I wouldn’t want to surf here every day.”

So what does this mean to us? Does this pollution have any effect on our lives if we live outside of Chile? And if so, what can we do to help the situation? For one, there is really only one ocean in the world, and it’s all connected. What happens in other parts of our ocean inevitably affects us all. Secondly, we as consumers of paper can force the industry to
clean up its act. The United States is the largest consumer of pulp from Chile. So the next time you go to buy paper, think twice about what you purchase. It’s not difficult at all. Choose the paper with the highest recycled content possible and, better yet, ask for a product that is chlorinefree. If the store doesn’t have any, ask why not and see if they can order some. There are many pulp mills in the world that produce chlorinefree paper, and as we start demanding it, the market adapts. In fact, this magazine is printed on 100% recycled chlorine-free paper – a few years ago, there were no other mags printed like this, now printers all over the world are offering the cleaner option to the numerous publications that want to make the change.

Paper doesn’t cost much compared to the damage the industry is doing to the environment, so make your choices wisely. Someday, the fish will thank you. And so will the next generation of groms who hit the water.


Founder and former president of Save the Waves, Will Henry is now at-large on behalf of the organization, filing regular “eco-warrior” reports for The Surfer’s Path.

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