Chile glacier bill pits mines against water supply

Just how to define a glacier is at the heart of a Chilean congressional battle that could determine the future of mining in the world’s largest copper-producing country.

The revival of legislation to ban mining in glacial areas is spawning debate among miners, farmers and environmentalists about how to protect both vital water supplies and Chile’s mining industry. If the bill passes, mining experts fear it could shutter multibillion-dollar mining projects and slow investment.

The key will be in the fine print of whether the final bill defines glaciers as including frozen areas around them, too, and whether the protections would apply retroactively to mines already operating next to glaciers.

Environmentalists point to the crucial role played by glaciers in protecting Chile’s water as reason enough to implement the wider definition.

The country has some of Latin America’s most stable ground rules for mining. But the narrow nation that stretches 2,650 miles (4,270 kilometers) along the Pacific also has the largest number of glaciers, from icy southern Patagonia to its most northern latitudes.

A broader definition could severely hamper the Chilean industry’s hopes to mine gold and copper from places where icy masses have retreated on the surface, exposing rich ore veins that share mountaintops with other forms of glacier water.

Already, environmentalists have demanded tougher protections for nearby populations and natural resources, and mining projects have faced costly delays.

If passed, the bill could halt mining operations such as Barrick’s $8 billion Pascua-Lama or state mining company Codelco’s $6.8 billion Andina 244 expansion project, which are both surrounded by glaciers and permafrost areas. To move forward, the projects would need further environmental safeguards to ensure they’re not hurting ice.

The resurfacing of the bill comes at a time when the Andina project is being widely questioned. Codelco wants to turn Andina into its star mine to produce more than 600,000 metric tons of copper a year, up from 250,000 now.

Source: Luis Andres Henao | The Associated Press