by Elif Karakartal and Ximena Blanco
On Monday 9 March 2015, the Tribunal in the town of Vilos ordered the demolition of the Mauro tailings (toxic waste) dam at the Minera Los Pelambres copper mine in Chile. Minera Los Pelambres is owned by London-listed mining company Antofagasta plc, controlled by Chile’s Luksic family. The dam and the lake of toxic waste behind it are upstream from the small town of Caimanes.
This sentence followed the verdict of the Chilean Supreme Court on the 21 October 2014 ordering the mine to restore the natural course of the Pupio River. The Supreme Court gave the Los Pelambres mine one month to prepare and present a plan to fulfil the order. The plan proposed by Minera Los Pelambres was rejected on 9 March as inadequate, principally because it does not take into consideration the water from springs which are the main provider of water of the valley but are now buried under the dam. This was the main reason that the Tribunal ordered the demolition of the Mauro dam last October.
In Caimanes, the verdict was celebrated with happiness and euphoria, but in the Chilean media and in political circles the news of the demolition order fell like a bomb. Immediately, Minera Los Pelambres stated that “to demolish the tailings dam’s walls would pose a grave danger for the community and the environment”. Diego Hernandez, Chief Executive Officer of Antofagasta Minerals, said that “without Mauro it is not possible to maintain the production of Pelambres.” He argued that the judicial decision would damage the future of mining in Chile. Minera Los Pelambres appealed for its plan to be approved.
Far from attending to the damage caused by its operations or respecting the verdict of the highest Chilean court of justice, Minera Los Pelambres is for a third time* attempting to avoid the verdict of a Chilean court and is using its political and economic power to convince Chilean public opinion that without the Mauro dam the Los Pelambres mine will disappear and Chilean mining will be at an end.
The recent conflict of interest between the Chilean President’s son and the Luksic family’s Chile Bank had already lost the Bachelet government credibility, and this is generating a social movement which is demanding equality before the law. At this stage, the Luksic family is trying to persuade people to believe that the interests of Antofagasta Minerals are the interests of the Chilean people. But their credibility is broken in Caimanes, where Minera Los Pelambres has never recognized the detrimental impacts of its activity. The discontent spread into the neighbouring Choapa province, as it has the same problem. There was an explosive response to what was seen as theft of water by Minera Los Pelambres. Antofagasta plc stocks fell 5.5% in value on the London Stock Exchange the day after the court verdict and continue downwards.
Although in Chile, nobody is questioning large scale mining as the motor of the development, the case of Caimanes is generating united condemnation of the way minerals are extracted, and according to the majority of Chilean people now it does not make any sense to pursue a form of ‘development’ which damages the environment in the vicinity of communities living alongside rivers, springs and subterranean waters. Economic power cannot overpower the law.
At present, Minera Los Pelambres has refused to demolish the tailings dam or halt its operation. The company says that to do so would be the end of Minera Los Pelambres (the fourth largest operating mine in the country, and the most important subsidiary of Antofagasta Minerals Chile, representing 60% of its production).
Perhaps this landmark ruling could effectively mean the end of Minera Los Pelambres. Or it could result in the nation waking up and deciding that it is no longer prepared to tolerate a reckless mining industry which works only for its image while it grabs water, contaminates the environment, destroys the local economy, divides communities and disregards the law.
Without doubt, this case, and the related struggle of the people of Caimanes, have crystallized a strong sense in Chile that constitutional rights must be respected. There is a sense that riding roughshod over the law can no longer be allowed in a country where dictatorship was deposed.
At present, the company is arguing that it is not possible to demolish the Mauro dam because it would need to relocate 3,500 million tonnes of toxic waste. At a minimum, Chilean citizens expect the company to stop adding to the toxic waste behind the dam. It makes no sense to continue dumping such waste after it has been recognised by the Chilean State that it is damaging people and the environment. For their part, the people of Caimanes want their water back, and demand the re-establishment of their natural, clean water supply, as ordered by the court sentence. The problems connected with dam demolition are for the company to solve, not for the community. The Chilean people hope the company will act according to the law.
The Mauro Tailings Dam must stop being used, and natural clean water returned to the community, immediately!
* On 4 July 2013, the Supreme Court of Chile declared the Mauro Tailings Dam to be dangerous. It stated that the company would be responsible of there were a disaster. It obliged the company to implement and evacuation plan for the area. On 12 July 2013, the Office of the Environmental Superintendent of Chile resolved that the company had not complied with the archaeological plan to which it had committed itself in the Environmental Impact Agreement of 2004. The community is still waiting for the company to comply with these obligations.