Dust rising from the tailings storage facility behind the Mauro dam at Los Pelambres mine

By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network, with assistance from Javiera Martinez

For background, see our 2017 report, In the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Other reporting on Antofagasta can be found here.

This year’s ‘hybrid’ AGMs are helping London-listed mining companies to avoid any meaningful scrutiny simply for lack of participation by shareholders. The AGM of Rio Tinto, second biggest mining company in the world, attracted an audience of 35. I suspect that Anglo American’s recent AGM was even more sparsely attended. And at the Antofagasta AGM on Wednesday 12 May there were only FOUR shareholders attending in addition to the company’s board.

At least it was quick. Anyone with a busy afternoon ahead of them could have taken comfort in the fact that company Chairman Jean-Paul Luksic maintained the company’s tradition of short, evasive and inadequate answers. It reminded me of the company’s 2013 AGM, where the company simply contradicted everything we said, and its 2018 AGM, where it gave answers that were so thin as to be useless.

This time, Luksic responded to critical points made by our colleagues in Chile by saying, “We take a different view.” And the only questions asked were those put by London Mining Network on behalf of our contacts in the community of Caimanes, Chile, affected by Antofagasta’s Minera Los Pelambres copper mine, so the Question and Answer session was over in a trice.

In Luksic’s initial speech he span the by-now-familiar industry line that the mining industry is key to Chile’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and provides the world’s solution to climate change by producing ever greater quantities of copper to meet demand for electrical conductivity and renewable energy (oh, and weaponry too, but mining companies don’t mention that – though you can read about it in our report, Martial Mining). Incidentally, of course, the increase in demand for copper will also increase Antofagasta’s income…

Company Chief Executive Ivan Arriagada mentioned Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project in Minnesota, USA, but did not mention the setbacks in permitting that it is facing.

Our questions were submitted in writing and read out by a company official. Replies from the Chairman were not prepared in advance, as they were at the Rio Tinto and Anglo American AGMs, but given their bald inadequacy, they did not need any preparation.

Here they all are.

1. The Caimanes community presented an appeal to the Chilean Courts regarding the “Infraestructura Complementaria (INCO)” project. The appeal is over the failure to ensure citizen participation (PAC) by the People of Caimanes. Caimanes is directly affected by this project, since it is located in the “area of ​​influence”.

According to Minera Los Pelambres, the PAC complied with the requirements, since activities would have been carried out in nearby towns, such as Los Vilos, Salamanca or Illapel. However, the community criticizes the actions of the company and questions whether these activities have complied with the legal standard. Few Caimanes people participated. This is a directly affected area and the processes of citizen participation should not create obstacles and difficulties, but, on the contrary, facilitate participation.

Question: Why were PAC activities not carried out directly in the town of Caimanes, if it is much more affected than Los Vilos, Illapel or Salamanca by INCO?

Jean-Paul Luksic replied that the main works for the expansion are happening at Los Vilos and Salamanca, so that is why the hearings were held there and not in Caimanes. But Caimanes people were allowed to participate in those hearings and they did participate. But we had just pointed out that very few of them did, because of the fact that hearings were not held in their town.

2. Regarding the expansion of the INCO project and the appeal in the Chilean Courts by Caimanes Community, there has been a long conflict with the Caimanes community, due to the mining impact of Antofagasta Minerals on the community and the environment, and this project directly affects the People of Caimanes, as they are in the “area of influence”.

Question: Why, after years of conflict, does Antofagasta Minerals continue trying to harm the People of Caimanes? Why is Antofagasta taking actions that go against the standard of prior consultation?

Jean-Paul Luksic replied that the company had “had our ups and downs with the community of Caimanes” (what an understatement!) but had been in constant dialogue and that in the last few years the company had been “happy to see that dialogue with the majority of the community has produced agreements with which we are all happy” – all apart from those who are not happy, of course.

3. The Caimanes community filed an appeal in the Chilean Courts for the psychosocial damages that the community faces as a result of the mining company’s actions. Compensation is requested for the damages suffered. Minera Los Pelambres does not recognize the damages that people are suffering and excuses itself by saying it has complied with environmental regulations. However, the psychological reports presented show the effects and consequences that the construction, installation and operation of the El Mauro Dam has had on the lives of the inhabitants of Caimanes.

Question: Beyond compliance with environmental regulations, does it seem credible that Minera Los Pelambres has not caused psychological harm to the inhabitants of Caimanes? As a company, will you have the humility and empathy to recognize the need to repair this damage without having to wait for a judicial sentence? What are the measures that Antofagasta Minerals is implementing to reduce the impact on people’s lives?

Note that what is being spoken of here is the presence above the town of Caimanes of an enormous tailings dam containing a colossal quantity of liquid. If the dam were to break, people in the town would have ten minutes to reach safety before being swept away by the mass of mining waste mixed with water that would surge down the valley. People live with this in mind all the time.

Jean-Paul Luksic replied, “Through our permanent dialogue with the community we have a different view.” Through dialogue and the agreements the company has reached, the community has supported the company and what it is doing in the area, he asserted. “That’s why we believe the dialogue has produced good results for both sides,” he went on. (Well, a jolly good result for the company – by wearing down community resistance, it managed to get a good section of the community to withdraw complaints because they could see no prospect of success against such a powerful opponent.) All these concerns have been reviewed by the authorities that looked after the process and they were disregarded. (Interesting use of the word ‘disregarded’: I suppose he meant ‘judged to be ill-founded’ but the more usual use of the word would suggest the meaning ‘ignored’.)

4. About the appeal in the Chilean Courts over the psychological damages to the Caimanes Community.

Question: Does Antofagasta Minerals undertake to finance a comprehensive rehabilitation center for the psychosocial health of the population? Does Antofagasta Minerals commit to financing a psychosocial study for all the inhabitants of the area of influence of its mining operations? If so, in order to have independence and objectivity, the psychosocial study must be contracted by the community and its representatives, with funding from Antofagasta Minerals.

Jean-Paul Luksic replied, “We have a different view.” The company has come to the conclusion, through its permanent dialogue, that this has not been the case, and so did the authorities, which disregarded this concern.

5. The presence of a toxic cloud coming from the tailings dam caused the Caimanes community to file an appeal to protect their health. Several national and international media have published the severity of this toxic cloud. The monitoring of concentration levels only shows the average concentration during the day, but does not present data on levels that exceed the norm. The reports on the levels of contamination presented have been made by companies contracted directly by Minera Los Pelambres.

Question: Are you willing to submit to the analysis of experts and completely independent international laboratories to seriously measure the pollution in the air and on the ground, and the effects of the El Mauro tailings dam on the physical and mental health of the inhabitants of Caimanes? Is Antofagasta Minerals willing to finance this independent study? Does Antofagasta Minerals commit to financing a health program to evaluate the population for the impact that toxic dust is generating on their lungs?

Jean-Paul Luksic replied that this was a unique event in ten years of operations. It had only happened once. There was no toxic cloud, only dust. The company informed the authorities of the event when it happened, the authorities came quickly to the site, “and we had measurements taken by us and checked by the authorities and all these were shared with the community.”

6. About the toxic cloud over the Caimanes community. The monitoring of the toxic cloud records the averages of pollution concentration during 18 hours per day, but the pollution spikes are not presented during the day. The average, although high, does not exceed the norm. However, there are spikes during the day that do exceed the norm and it is necessary to take measures to mitigate this contamination.

Question: Why does Antofagasta Minerals accept monitoring of toxic cloud contamination that does not consider the spikes, since this affects not only the community, but its workers? Does Antofagasta Minerals undertake to request that the results of the daily measurements be presented publicly and at 30-minute intervals?

Jean-Paul Luksic replied, “As you rightly say, we have a monitoring system over the physical and chemical properties of the tailings. We have on online monitoring system and this programme has been approved by the authorities and the community and today we share information that comes out of this monitoring.” (And? What about an answer to the question about spikes and sharing monitoring results at 30-minute intervals? I assume his failure to answer the question means the company refuses this request.)

7. About the toxic cloud. Neither the Superintendency nor the companies contracted by Minera Los Pelambres (such as SGS, which is one of those that usually issue reports) enjoy credibility among the inhabitants of Caimanes. The Superintendency issued a statement stating that the components of that cloud never exceeded the maximum permitted limits. The phenomenon has lasted for months and did not occur only on May 6, 2020.

Question: Why does Antofagasta Minerals take refuge in weak national environmental regulations and in a Chilean justice system that is traditionally subservient to political power and lacks public trust? Does Antofagasta Minerals understand that this can cause irreversible damage to the health and life of the population?

Jean-Paul Luksic replied, “We obviously disagree here. The environmental regulation in Chile has been very important for the development of the country and is recognised internationally and the judicial system has been a paramount institution in the development of the country and has proved its independence time and again.” (Well, yes, we do indeed disagree. But what about the question about irreversible damage to health and life? I assume the answer to that is the same – “We disagree.”)

And that was that. An AGM that truly added insult to injury. It seems that nothing touches Antofagasta – they sail through criticism in the serene confidence that whatever they do, they will not have to answer for it, because the imbalance of power between them and the communities whose lives they afflict is as massive as the Mauro tailings dam itself.