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Chilean volcano hurts Argentine economy

Vacation season curtailed by ash

A boat covered with volcanic ash was docked on a lake in southern Argentina in June. A volcano in Chile has been spewing ash for six weeks, which has hurt tourism in neighboring Argentina. A boat covered with volcanic ash was docked on a lake in southern Argentina in June. A volcano in Chile has been spewing ash for six weeks, which has hurt tourism in neighboring Argentina. (Federico Grosso/Associated Press/File)
By Alexander Wilson and Federico Quilodran
Associated Press / July 22, 2011

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SANTIAGO, Chile - The 100 million tons of pyroclastic ash and rock spewed by an Andean volcano has meant hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for communities more accustomed to profiting from the dramatic mountain landscape.

The Cordon Caulle volcano in Chile opened a new gash along a ridge just across the border and upwind from Argentina. For six weeks now, it has been belching ash into the sky, grounding flights across the lower third of South America for most of the winter tourist season. Lodges and restaurants have been ghostly at resorts normally filled with skiers. Airport runways, Andean slopes, and sheep and cattle ranches are coated in thick, abrasive volcanic material.

“Every time the wind blows, no matter the direction, we get ash and sand,’’ said Ricardo Alonso, mayor of Villa La Angostura.

In his town, a lakeside Andean jewel northeast of the volcano, only 62 of the town’s 152 hotels are operating, and many of the visitors are not high-paying skiers but volunteers helping to shovel out the mess, tourism secretary Juan Jose Fioranelli said.

Missing in the neighboring resort city of Bariloche are big-spending Brazilians, usually so numerous that Argentines jokingly refer to the city as “Braziloche.’’ Bariloche’s 140,000 population usually hosts 250,000 tourists this time of year, including 40,000 Brazilians.

Since the eruption began June 4, the volcano has released energy equal to 70 atomic bombs, or 2 percent of the world’s electricity capacity, during the first week alone, calculated scientists at Argentina’s National University of Rio Negro. The ash has blown around the Southern Hemisphere several times, grounding jets as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Airline industry losses could total $50 million, said Helane Becker, an airlines analyst with Dahlman Rose & Company. Carriers with many routes in Argentina, such as state-owned Aerolineas Argentina and Chile-based LAN Air Lines, will suffer most, but US and European carriers also have been affected, she said.

Aerolineas is still flying a vastly reduced schedule, with 30 flights canceled and more than a dozen postponed yesterday alone because of the ash cloud, which can severely damage jets in flight. All flights to Bariloche remain suspended until at least Tuesday.

Argentine agriculture also has suffered. In the hardest-hit province of Rio Negro, which is dotted with sheep and cattle ranches, farm losses total $24 million, said Adolfo Sarmiento, an agricultural engineer at Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology. Wool producers have lost as much as $3.8 million, he said, with ash making grazing difficult for 1,400 operations that manage hundreds of thousands of sheep, cows, and goats.

Geologists say the eruption has diminished from its peak in June, when the plume rose 6 miles and stretched across the continent. Chile has allowed about 3,500 evacuees, most of them small farmers living below the volcano, to return home.

But a NASA satellite photo this week showed the volcano still spewing ash nearly 2 miles high in a column that stretched for 50 miles over Argentina, adding to the gritty layers of snow and ash.

Experts have estimated that in Villa La Angostura alone, 5 million cubic meters of volcanic sand must be removed, Fioranelli said. That’s roughly equivalent to covering the entire island of Manhattan in 2 inches of the grit. Hundreds of people who started with snow shovels now use heavy equipment to dump the mess into nearby quarries.

Chile’s National Geology and Mines Service remained on “red alert’’ yesterday, saying the eruption isn’t finished yet. There is still a chance of more outbursts, and small earthquakes from underground volcanic activity still rattle the area. Lava and toxic gases still spew from the crater, creating a nightly light show extending about 1,600 feet above the volcano.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has declared an regional economic emergency, doubling assistance to poor families and postponing tax payments for restaurants, hotels, and other tourism businesses that do not lay off workers.

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