Chile’s environmental regulator has imposed an $8.2m fine on a subsidiary of mining firm BHP for causing ‘irreparable environmental damage’ in Las Vegas de Tilopozo in the Salar de Atacama.
The fine has been imposed by Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) on Minera Escondida (MEL), which operates the Escondida copper porphyry deposit in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
BHP operates the mine with a 57.5% stake. Other joint venture partners include Rio Tinto (30%) and Japan-based JECO Corp (12.5%).
The fine was the result of exceeding the water extraction limit at the mine.
SMA superintendent Cristóbal De La Maza said that excessive use of water resources by the company had significantly affected the Peine Indigenous Community.
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The community uses the water resource as economic support for traditional uses.
This follows a complaint filed by the Department of Conservation and Protection of Water Resources of the General Directorate of Waters (DGA) in April 2018 citing non-compliance with the Early Warning Plan (PAT) of the Monturaqui – Negrillar – Tilopozo aquifer.
This aquifer is located 78km east of Escondida and 50km south-east of the Salar de Atacama.
In its complaint, the DGA alludes to dropping groundwater levels, claiming that the company failed to make adjustments in accordance with the provisions of DGA Resolution No. 1972/2001.
Upon evaluation of all the antecedents and environmental inspections in April 2019, SMA classified the infraction as ‘very serious’.
As a result, the company committed to limiting pumping time in its Environmental Qualification Resolution (RCA) to reduce the impact on water resources and vegetation.
In a press statement, SMA said: “It should be remembered that the charge made against the owner was for verifying a reduction in the water table of more than 25 centimetres in the ‘Tilopozo Sector’, this is the distance at which the water is from the surface of the land, surpassing it irreversibly and since 2005, the maximum acceptable decrease that these vegetation systems can support.”
Covering 17,000km², the Salar de Atacama is said to be the largest salt flat at the national level.
Besides Escondida, charges have also been filed against three other mining companies, namely Albemarle (ALB); Zaldívar (CMZ); and Soquimich (SQM), whose activities could affect communities and ecosystems.