Destruction of glaciers, mega drought and the possibility of collapse of tailings dams


Anglo American: Don’t Steal Our Water! Greenpeace: / Free the Water, Chile. See for link to Chilean Greenpeace campaign 

By Javiera Martinez

Anglo American is one of the largest mining companies in the world. In 2019, it registered 29.9 billion dollars in revenue. In Chile, it has mining operations in three regions of the country: Los Bronces in the Metropolitan region, El Melón in the Valparaíso region, and Collahuasi in the Tarapacá region.

Despite the global pandemic due to COVID-19, the mining giant has not been affected. It seems that extractive mining is untouchable. According to its production report of 30 September, 2020, production this year increased by 4% in total, generating 79,400 tons of copper from the Los Bronces operation, 75,500 in Collahuasi and 10,800 tons from the El Soldado operation.(1)

However, this mining giant is not known only for its large amount of mineral extraction, but for the socio-environmental conflicts in which it has historically been involved, due to the negative impact it has on communities and the degradation of ecosystems. The communities that live near the El Soldado and Los Bronces operations have been directly affected.(2)

Every year the company holds its annual shareholders’ meeting (Annual General Meeting, or AGM) in London. London Mining Network, in conjunction with the affected communities, put demands to those responsible for the company’s decisions and to the shareholders so that they can answer for their actions. This year the AGM was held behind closed doors with the minimum quorum, according to the company, due to the COVID-19 pandemic; but it also served to avoid having to account face to face for their actions.(3)

Questions were sent to Anglo American from the communities affected by the company, calling on them to answer for their actions. The main concerns of the communities have been, for years, the damage caused in both territories by water and air pollution, the destruction of glaciers, the mega-drought caused by mining operations and the concern about the possible collapse of the tailings dams, where the company dumps its processed mining waste.

Destruction of glaciers

One of the main conflicts facing the mining company today is the Los Bronces Integrado expansion project and the project’s connection with the destruction of the glaciers that are present in the territory.

The “Los Bronces Integrated” project is one of the strongest mining projects in Chile, with a projected investment of 3,444 million US dollars. It will be located in the mountain range, between Santiago and Valparaíso, expanding the Anglo American mining belt through an underground mine situated in the Yerba Loca nature sanctuary, near the estuary of the same name, connected to the main mine that operates near the Maipo river. In this place are the main sources of fresh water for Santiago and the rocky glaciers of the Cajón de los Sulfatos.

The director of Fundación Glaciares Chile, Felipe Espinosa, explains that the Los Bronces mine, which will be enlarged, “is very close to the Olivares glaciers, which generate a river that is the source of the Maipo river and the Mapocho river, one of the Santiago’s main drinking water suppliers. “(4)

The communities affected by Anglo American in Lo Barnechea together with the Corporation in Defense of the Mapocho Basin and Movimiento NO + Anglo put questions to the company at the 2020 AGM about the glaciers, but the company does not take responsibility for its actions.

The important thing to understand is that more than 70% of the Chilean population is supplied with water from glaciers for consumption, irrigation, crop cultivation, livestock maintenance, sanitation and hygiene. The definition of ‘glacial’ used by Anglo American is utilitarian, biased and erroneous, among other things because it does not consider glaciers as part of an ecosystem or as an essential part in water cycles. A glacier is a body or volume of ice produced by the accumulation, compaction and recrystallisation of snow produced as part of a hydratic cycle. A glacier has a section created at substantial height and at temperatures of under zero degrees in which it gains mass and another part at its bottom slope where it loses mass and which is vital for the formation of lakes and rivers. It also has a central zone called ‘the line of glacial equilibrium’ where the amount of loss or gain is zero. 

To speak exclusively of ‘white glaciers’ is therefore deceptive and masks the existence of other types of existing glaciers. Naming only ‘white’ (or exposed) glacier masses renders at least two other types of glaciers invisible and unprotected: ‘covered’ glaciers (covered by a layer of debris which protects them against changes in temperature, as is characteristic for a majority of glaciers in Northern Chile) and ‘rock’ or ‘rubble’ glaciers: ice and rock geological formations provide a constant flow of water feeding Andean rivers in the north and central Chile which are more resistant to temperature changes.

The Bronces site of Anglo American operates in an open pit situated on the Infiernillo rock glacier which has a significant layer of waste material which renders it invisible.

The company is using the excuse of a mega drought as a reason for not emptying the tailing dams in the mountain range. There has been a total absence of rainfall over several years during which time glacial water has been the only source for human consumption in Santiago. According to Anglo American, glaciers are not the main source of water for Chile. The main sources are liquid (rain) and solid (snow) precipitation. Glacier water is only used in extreme drought periods but will never replace the contribution of precipitation.  This assertion is misleading, however: the extreme drought which has been going on now for years and which the company uses as an excuse for not emptying its tailings dams is rooted in the complete absence of solid and liquid precipitation, making glacier water essential for human consumption.

Mega drought and access to water

The most serious impact resulting from the action of the mining company is the mega-drought in the region, since Anglo American has around 400 litres per second of water rights. The company has been supplied by underground water sources, capturing water from the mountain range, and interrupting the natural flow, since the company is consuming water not only from the 16 wells it owns, but also from basins and rivers. The estuaries dried up about seven or eight years ago due to extraction from wells by the company, and since 2015 there have been families who do not have water in their homes. Since April 2019, the community has not had more than eight litres per second, when about 30 litres per second is required to supply the community.

Greenpeace Chile denounced the water shortage that residents of the town of El Melón, in the commune of Nogales, Valparaíso region, would be experiencing. According to Greenpeace Chile, one of the main causes of this crisis would be the Anglo American company, through the El Soldado mining deposit,(5) leading to over-exploitation of water in the Valparaiso region of Chile, in the context of severe water shortages. Quintero, Puchuncaví and El Melón are the most affected areas. El Soldado mine has rights to 13,400 million litres of water a year, equivalent to the daily water use of a city of 360,000 inhabitants. 

The community of El Melón has mobilized for years to denounce the situation they are experiencing, where there are families who have not had access to drinking water since 2015(6) During the Anglo American AGM, the community raised serious questions about the situation, where desertification in the Valparaíso region is already a fact, and will continue to affect agricultural production processes and increase temperature variation, generating a negative impact on the population, flora and fauna.(7) The company responded that “The use of desalinated water is one of the future options, along with the implementation of new technologies and the use of industrial waters that are not suitable for human consumption.”

Greenpeace has called in to question the mining company’s proposal to build a new desalination plant in Quintero, which would need more water for its operation, given that in neighbouring El Melon, Anglo American already uses an equivalent amount of water to that consumed by citizens of Viña del Mar, a much larger urban area, with almost 300,000 inhabitants.(8) The community of El Melon is also opposed to the project, having several dry wells in the zone already, whilst Anglo American would use 500,000 litres of water per hour in this new undertaking.

In this same region, Anglo American was fined 600million Chilean pesos- equivalent to around £600,000, at that time- for environmental damage. 30 hectares of native flora was damaged within the operational area of the El Soldado mine, during the expansion of its operations, in the area around the Gallo stream. The daily water usage of that mine is equivalent to that consumed by a city of 360,000 inhabitants.  

Possible collapse of tailings dams 

On 28 March 28, 1965, at 12:33, an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred, affecting cities such as La Ligua, Cabildo and Petorca in Region V, among many others. This triggered a great tragedy: 280 people were killed, due to the collapse of two tailings dams El Cobre Tranque Viejo and El Cobre Tranque Nuevo, in the commune of Nogales. Many bodies were never recovered, and remain under the tailings until today.

At present, tailings continue to expand in the area. Anglo American’s “El Torito” dam is much larger than those that caused the catastrophe of 1965. This represents a serious danger for the current population. Until before the 2019 expansion, the company was authorised to accumulate approximately 80 times the tailings spilled in 1965.

El Torito has presented deficiencies in its construction and operation, for which the mining company has been fined for serious and very serious infractions of Supreme Decree No. 248 (in the Chilean Supreme Court) that regulates the design, construction, operation and closure of the deposits of tailings. In December 2019, its expansion was approved. El Torito is located in the El Melón sector, a territory that is facing a mega drought due to extractive operations.(9)

A presentation by Carlos Vásquez Leiva, President of the Valparaíso College of Geographers, in February 2019, provided territorial analysis of some impacts in the flood zone due to an abrupt failure in the wall of the El Torito dam. This flooding would cause damage in two sectors of Route 5 North, the main artery of land communication in the country, for a total of 5.5 km in length. The analysis concludes that the impact on the Rural Environment would be 912 people and 382 homes directly affected. On the other hand, in the urban sector the number would rise to 3,159 people and 1,042 homes.(10)

According to the researcher Patricio Bustamante, the danger of these kinds of impacts is distributed throughout the country, because billions of tons of toxic sludge are stored at high altitude, upstream from  towns and cities inhabited by thousands of people. They are a time bomb, just like the ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut, which has produced an enormous tragedy.(11)