Did mining giant Anglo American violate Chile’s environmental laws?

kLBRPzYIn central Chile, a steady stream of large trucks pump out exhaust fumes as they travel in and out of El Soldado, a large open cut copper mine owned by Anglo American, a British based mining company.

Many locals are angry that the mine has transformed from an underground to open cut mine recently. In El Melon, a town a few kilometres away from the mine, Jorge Ramirez, along with his wife and three children are among the disgruntled habitants.

Jorge, a local community leader, says “The mine destroys nature and native forests… It pollutes the water, it also takes away our water because a lot of water is needed for mining processes.”

According to Ramirez the company also left behind a tailings pit. He thinks this lake of water, ground up rock and chemicals could be harmful to the community.

Economic Impact

Chile’s economy has relied on copper mining for its stability for years. The industry has contributed to Chile’s development over the last 10-15 years, providing metal alloys, coins, electronics and pipes for customers worldwide.

Anglo American have 5 mines across Chile and are one of the biggest mining companies active in Chile today. They have created around 13,000 jobs for the people of Chile but they are also subject to heavy criticism.

Marcelo Esquivel, a company spokesperson stated “”We extract natural resources, so there’s an open pit, there are roads… But we want our impact on the community to be a net positive. On the one hand, by mitigating our environmental impact, but also by paying taxes, creating employment for the community, and buying locally.”

In September of last year, the superintendent of the Environment ratified charges of failing to comply with their environmental guidelines. To monitor the Anglo American’s adherence to the guidelines, a government agency was formed and paid close attention to the methods of the company.

This pending investigation could lead to Anglo American incurring a fine of up to €3.67 million ($5 million), as well as their environmental permit being revoked.

Evironmental Impact

El Soldado mine is located in a district of Chile where the belloto tree grows, a tree declared a national treasure by the Chilean government in 1995. Anglo American’s environmental permit includes a responsibility for them to plant more belloto trees when the mining company cuts them down.

The company claims the belloto trees are actually better off thanks to them. They have created a 1,000-hectare space dedicated to preserving and studying the belloto trees amongst other local wildlife and plants, but they are still behind on their reforestation obligations.

Esquivel adds: “We accept the majority of the [Environment Superintendent's] charges. We want to resolve the issues in which we’ve gotten behind.”

The law allows the company 10 days to present its compliance plans, which Anglo American did not do. Cristobal Osorio, the Superintendent of the Environment, said, “Today it can be affirmed without any doubt that the Anglo American case will end in a sanction or in an absolution, because the company did not present any compliance plan that could have suspended the disciplinary procedure.”

Toxicity

As well as these issues to do with reforestation, there is also a black cloud hanging over Anglo American related to their water management. Water in several of the regions they mine in contains far more sulphur than the law permits.

Sulphur can do some horrible things to vulnerable members of the population, causing diarrhoea and sickness. It also makes the water taste and smell bad. Jorge Ramirez has been forced to buy all of his families drinking water and only use tap water to bathe and wash clothes because of the high sulphur levels.

Chile is prone to earthquakes and Ramirez fears this will impact the local community in a big way. He fears that in the event of a large earthquake, the toxic tailings pit could spill.

“If something happens, these mine tailings will make it all the way to the Concahua River, to Calera. In 2010, the earthquake was in southern Chile. If something had happened here, a spill, we’d all be dead.”

Esquivel is confident that the pit at El Soldado is secure even after the 2010 earthquake, although this has happened before in the region. He does admit that the concern of the locals was justified and even invited them to come and look at the pit for themselves.

Anglo American claims it is working hard to keep up with its environmental obligations as they are under huge scrutiny from Chile’s justice system. The people of El Melon just hope the improvements don’t take to long for the sake of their safety.