Chilean environmental court approves Codelco's Salvador water overuse remedy plan

FILE PHOTO: The Codelco El Teniente copper mine, the world's largest underground copper mine is shown near Rancagua, Chile August 13, 2020. Picture taken August 13, 2020. Picture taken through a window. REUTERS/Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A Chilean environmental court on Wednesday approved an agreement between state-owned copper miner Codelco and the government to remedy sustained water overuse by its Salvador mine.

A complaint was originally laid against Codelco, the world’s No. 1 copper miner, in July by the State Defense Council, which represents the government in legal matters.

The government alleged that during 36 years of operation, Codelco had overdrawn water from the northern Pedernales salt flat without considering its regeneration capacity, causing “a series of significant losses, detriment or damage to the environment.”

Under the $56 million action plan approved by the Antofagasta-based Environmental Tribunal, Codelco will be required to recharge the Pedernales aquifer, conduct water studies both in the salt flat and river basins around it, establish better dialogue with parties in the area including indigenous communities, and restore 60 hectares of high Andean plains to their original condition.

“This network of basins and high Andean salt flats ... holds great fragility, uniqueness and high importance for the sustainable development of our country,” said Marcelo Hernández, one of the court’s judges.

The agreement clears the way for Codelco’s “Rajo Inca” project to overhaul its aging Salvador deposit, in operation since 1959, converting it to an open cast mine from an underground one.

Codelco Chief Executive Octavio Araneda said the company’s remedy plan for Pedernales salt flat damage was in addition to more than 600 commitments it made as part of an environmental plan approved by the government in February for Rajo Inca.

“It shows that the refoundation of the Salvador Division will be sustained on solid sustainability pillars that cover everything from business management, community relations, caring for the environment and efficient management of natural resources,” he said.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Steve Orlofsky