April 24, 2015 / 3:50 PM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 3-Peru says it could ask for changes to Southern Copper project amid protests

* Minister says every environmental plan could be improved

* The project’s environmental plan was approved in August

* Protest leader says opponents want project canceled

* Minister expects to issue construction permit in 2 months (Adds comment from company)

By Marco Aquino

LIMA, April 24 (Reuters) - Peru’s energy and mines minister said on Friday the government could ask Southern Copper Corp to make further changes to its $1.4 billion Tia Maria project if needed after protests by farmers turned deadly this week.

Rosa Maria Ortiz said the government was focused on restarting talks with opponents of the open-pit copper project, who fear it will pollute surrounding agricultural valleys.

One protester died from a bullet wound during clashes with police on Wednesday as a month-long protest spread ahead of the proposed mine’s construction.

Tia Maria has been stalled since 2011 after three died in similar rallies.

Conflicts over mining in Peru, the world’s third-biggest copper producer, have held up billions in investment and left several protesters dead in recent years.

The government could ask Southern Copper to improve the project’s environmental plan, said Ortiz.

Peru approved the environmental impact study for Tia Maria in August after the company agreed to build a desalinization plant to ease pressure on water supplies.

Ortiz, who has emphasized dialogue with Tia Maria opponents, said she does not have any issues with the environmental impact study as is.

“Nevertheless, if in this dialogue it could eventually be established that there is something to improve in the environmental plan, like every environmental impact study, it’s improvable,” Ortiz said at a press conference with foreign media.

“But we consider that all impacts have been foreseen and will be properly managed, Ortiz said.

Ortiz, who became President Ollanta Humala’s fourth energy and mines minister in February, said she was “optimistic” that the 120,000-tonne-per-year project would start operating in 2017 as the company expects.

Southern Copper, controlled by Grupo Mexico, did not respond to requests for comment.

The company said in its earning statement Friday that Tia Maria will use state of the art technology with the highest international environmental standards.

It also said it expects the government’s efforts to negotiate with opponents to bear fruit soon.

“We believe that this mechanism will help expedite the pending construction permits for the project,” the company said.

Ortiz said she expects the building license to be issued in two months.

Jesus Cornejo, the head of a farmers’ group active in protests, said the government has not reached out to opponents since talks ended Tuesday in an impasse.

He said farmers are not asking for modifications but for the project to be canceled.

Reporting by Marco Aquino, Additional Reporting and Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio

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