Chile: Fishermen, environmentalists slam high court’s coal plant approval

Local mayor and senator among critics of US$1.4 billion thermoelectric plant Punta Alcalde in the Atacama Region.

Politicians, fishermen and environmentalists have denounced a coal-fired power plant which they say will “devastate” local fisheries in Huasco, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the billion dollar project.

Following a legal battle between environmental organizations and Endesa Chile Politicians, fishermen and environmentalists have denounced a coal-fired power plant which they say will “devastate” local fisheries in Huasco, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the billion dollar project.— subsidiary of the Spain-based multinational and Chile’s largest electric utility company — the Supreme Court ruled that the plant can be built, but that its emissions must be monitored.

The Energy Ministry praised the decision recently, saying it would allow for the development of mining in the region and set a precedent of approval for energy plants “which comply with environmental regulations.”

But environmental groups such as Oceana say the plant could lead to further degrading of ocean and air quality in an area already troubled by pollution.

“For fishermen this is devastating as this plant is going to be built where the only productive fishing waters are in Huasco,” Oceana Director Alex Muñoz told The Santiago Times.

For the last two years, Oceana has worked in protest of the plant together with SOS Huasco — an organization representing local fishermen in the Huasco area — as the contentious coal-plant has struggled against opponents and regulators.

The energy project was first halted when the plant failed a review by the Environmental Evaluation Service’s (SEA) regional commission in the Atacama in June 2012.

It was further stalled in the Santiago Appeals Court by Oceana in February last year. Endesa successfully appealed the subsequent injunction in the Supreme Court and after Friday’s decision the project is now ready to enter its construction phase.

The US$1.4 billion power plant will generate 740 megawatts, adding to Chile’s current energy capacity of 17,000 megawatts.

In 2012 the Environment Ministry declared the Huasco Valley a latent zone due to air pollution — as the level of particle pollution in the air was more than 80 percent over the norm.

“This plant will be built in one of the most polluted places in Chile — it has already been declared a latent zone,” Muñoz said. “Very dangerous levels of pollution are already affecting human health and marine life in this area.”

Muñoz explained that such power plants have a significant impact on their surroundings, not only emitting pollutants into the air but also through the use of seawater in cooling systems. Muñoz claims that the water used by plants returns to the ocean up to 10 degrees Celsius warmer and can lead to the death or migration of species that live in the vicinity.

On the night of the decision, members of SOS Huasco demonstrated against the ruling.

“Although the Supreme Court has declared this plant legal, it doesn’t mean that the energy policy in Chile is right,” Muñoz said. “I trust that the people of Huasco, along with others around the country, will join forces and ask our president to stop these plants. In Chile, we are lucky enough to have an abundance of renewable resources including solar, wind and tidal energy. If there was determination from the government these could be realized.”

Energy giant Endesa responded to criticism in a press release.

“Endesa Chile has made a firm commitment to being a good neighbor in the province of Huasco, providing not only in the field of energy, but also from the perspective of the needs of its inhabitants,” the statement read.

Endesa also stated that the company is contemplating an environmental monitoring plan for the the plant which will monitor air quality and impact on terrestrial and marine flora and fauna.

Atacama Region Sen. Isabel Allende expressed concern after the ruling.

“We respect the verdict, but it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has taken this kind of decision in a latent zone,” Allende stated in a press release.

Huasco Mayor Rodrigo Loyola expressed his dismay at the ruling, though accepted the court’s decision.

“Huasco is a sacrifice zone,” Loyola told La Nación. “As an authority we will be attentive to the measures that Endesa must comply with for this thermoelectric project. It is a project of top technology that does not exist in Chile. But our objections are not specific to the project in itself — Huasco has historically been a contaminated area.”

The Energy Ministry said the development of the project is necessary in order to meet rising energy demand driven by an expanding mining sector in the North.

“The approval of the project Punta Alcalde will allow the incorporation of competitive energy in a region that needs energy of a reasonable value in order to make important mining development viable,” the Ministry’s statement read.

Punta Alcalde is among several thermoelectric power plants to weather controversy in Chile, including the Coronel energy project, construction of which was recently stalled by an injunction brought by local authorities.

By Sandra Segall | The Santiago Times