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Environmental Suits Loom for Chile’s Copper Mines

Chilean flagUsually business-friendly Chile may be witnessing a turning tide, as more and more mining and energy projects get stalled by environmental objectors.

The $5 billion Castilla coal-fired plant was cancelled after fierce environmental opposition, and legal challenges are possible for the Chilean energy company AES Gener’s Alto Maipo hydropower project, Reuters reports.

But copper mining projects could be challenged even more strongly. Chile is the world’s top copper producer, with the metal contributing 15 percent of national GDP. About $40 billion in mining projects have been frozen or delayed, the SONMAI mining association said last week.

Projects that could come under fire include BHP Billiton‘s Cerro Colorado mine, state-owned Codelco’s Ventanas refinery, Teck Resources‘ Relincho, JX Nippon’s Caserones and Chilean Antofagasta Minerals’ Pelambres.

The country’s Supreme Court stopped construction on Goldcorp‘s $3.9 billion El Morro copper and gold mining project in 2012, at the request of indigenous groups. The company then won a permit but the groups appealed and the court halted construction again last November.

Last year, Chile’s environmental regulator suspended Barrick‘s $8.5 billion Pascua-Lama gold mine because the company began pre-stripping before protective infrastructure was finished, posing a threat to the local water supply. Chile’s Superintendent of the Environment imposed its maximum fine – $16 million – on Barrick, finding that the company committed “very serious” violations of its environmental permits.

But experts also say the regulatory framework in Chile is confusing and sometimes contradictory, Reuters reports.

EL Pro recently reported on the environmental concerns raised by PolyMet Mining’s proposal for an open pit copper-nickel mine just north of Hoyt Lakes, Minn.

Takeaway: Chile, the world’s copper powerhouse, has also become a center of environmental litigation against such projects.

Tamar Wilner is Senior Editor at Environmental Leader PRO.

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