Field Notes September 18th 2021
Written by Emiliano Guaraldo, Irène Hediger

Photographs by: Offshore Studio, Flurina Gradin

Lonza Canal
in Visp and Naturpark Binntal


View on the Rhône river delta from above. 

In the morning of September 18, the group drove off west-ward from the Village of Oberwald, passing Münster and Brig on the way, following the Rhone River. All participants regrouped in the parking lot near the train station of Visp, where they met with Dr. Bernhard Aufdereggen.

Dr. Aufdereggen is the president of the non-profit organization Ärztinnen und Ärzte für Umweltschutz (Doctors for the Environment), which, since its inception, has brought attention to issues of environmental medicine connected to the use of pesticides, and the impact of air, nuclear, chemical, and electro-magnetic pollution on local communities in Switzerland.

He agreed to meet the team to discuss the case of mercury pollution that has affected the town of Visp, caused by the Lonza pharmaceutical corporation. Together with Dr. Aufdereggen, the team drove up to a nearby location where the whole area could be seen, and the actual size of the Lonza plant could be better appreciated.

Lonza is the largest employer of the area, and it currently employs around 4.000 people in the Visp area alone. Lonza is in the process of expanding its facilities. Lonza has admitted responsibility for leaking 50 tons of mercury into the local water system in the span of several decades, but Dr. Aufdereggen has estimated that the real figure is closer to 250 tons.

Mercury pollution is the byproduct of the production of pharmaceutical products and synthetic fertilizers. Initially, the contamination originated in a water canal close to Lonza’s facilities which feeds into the Rhone River, producing high mercury concentration levels in the soil around Visp. Doctors for the Environment led an independent analysis of the contamination because the original analysis was deemed too superficial and inadequate. Because of current Swiss laws, companies are responsible for cleaning up their own “ancient pollution”, leaving a certain degree of autonomy and trust in regard to contamination assessment and clean-up operations.

The group then drove to a location on the southern bank of the Rhone River, where the original contaminated water canal could be seen up close. Subsequently, the team moved towards Brig to a major waste deposit where the contaminated soil is still being transported and stored while awaiting cleaning. This location, which is not far from the Gamsa River, is closed to the public but we could get an idea from the parking lot. Here, Dr. Aufderegger resumed his explanation on Lonza’s clean-up operations. The visit to the waste deposit area concluded the guided tour with Dr. Aufdereggen.

* * *

The Lonza Canal between Visp and Raron. 

At the entrance of the large waste deposit area Deponie Gamsenried nearby Brig. 

Naturpark Binntal
After a scenic drive, which involved going through the old 2km-long Binntal tunnel and a delicious lunch in the lush garden of the Hotel Ofenhorn in Binn it was time to head back towards Ernen. Half-way we stopped to take a stroll through the Twingi Gorge with its yearly Land art exhibition. The Twingi Gorge Road has been one of the historical transport routes to cross the Alps over the Albrun Pass for partisans and merchants, hunters, and smugglers. Due to its unsafe condition a new road was built through the mountain in 1964-65. Today the Gorge attracts bikers, hikers, and Sunday strollers due to its breathtaking scenery and the restoration of the road in 2010 by the Naturpark Binntal. Our group enjoyed an easy walk along steep slopes and some of the artworks nestled, hung, or drilled into the landscape, here and there a wink, a comment or an interaction.

Back in Ernen, the president of the village, Francesco Walter, welcomed the group on the village square which is surrounded by historical buildings of the 16th century and the oldest Tell fresco at the “Tellenhaus” (1576). We visited the stone building “Zendenratshaus” (1750) a small museum with historical documents before walking through the village. The buildings and the church are examples of a wealthy past and the village’s important role in the High Middle Ages, where Ernen was, together with Münster, one of the grand parishes.

Francesco also introduced the group to the challenges of a contemporary Ernen. Summer tourism is important and since 1974, the Musikdorf Ernen International Festival with its classical music and literature program is part of the cultural landscape of Ernen. The Regional Nature Park is the first one in the Canton of Valais and plays a vital role. It has a wealth of mineral resources, flora and fauna are very diverse in the area. The Park connects protection and upkeep of valuable habitats with economic development.

Dinner at Restaurant Alpenblick and get together in Münster
After the two hours walk through Ernen the evening continued at the Restaurant Alpenblick that served a typical “Walliser Raclette” in the traditional way and a delicious fruit salad made from local fruits, for dessert. The night was still young and therefore the group gathered a last time in Münster at Irène Hedigers place around the fireplace with some more wine and tea and the discussion continued vividly.


The next day it snowed!


Essential references 


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