State sues mining companies for overusing water resources

Chile is suing several mines for alleged excessive environmental damage to the Atacama salt flats. The lawsuit was filed with an environmental court and seeks extensive reparations and more sustainable solutions for the future. It highlights the issues surrounding the copper and lithium industries’ water consumption and the subsequent damages incurred by ecosystems.

Reuters reports that Chile’s State Defense Council (CDE) launched a legal action against mining giants BHP, Antofagasta, and Albemarle because of alleged damage to the ecosystem surrounding the Monturaqui-Negrillar-Tilopozo aquifer. The lawsuit was admitted for processing by the First Environmental Court of the Republic of Chile. BHP and Antofagasta are both active in the copper mining industry, whereas Albemarle is one of Chile’s main lithium extraction companies. Both activities require pumping large amounts of water from the aquifer.

The lawsuit asserts that the aquifer is a crucial source of groundwater and that the activities of the companies “caused serious, permanent and irreparable deterioration of the aquifer, of the Tilopozo plains, of the fauna, and of the life systems and customs of the Peine Indigenous Community.”

Depleting a fragile resource

The CDE argued that this type of damage could have been foreseen, as the companies knew the maximum limit of descent that the water table (the maximum water level in relation to the distance between the resource and the surface) could reach. This means that more water was being pumped than what could be replaced by snow and rainfall. In a court document, the CDE said that “in particular, in relation to the responsibility of mining companies, the agency argues that there is an infringement of the rules on environmental protection, preservation, and conservation.”

Antofagasta and BHP both made statements assuring that they had both extracted water in accordance with what was allowed in their permits and that they had not observed any environmental deterioration in the area. Albemarle did not immediately respond.

The conclusions of the council are supported by a background review carried out by the Superintendence of the Environment (SMA), in addition to various other reports by sectoral bodies with environmental competence.

The Council is therefore seeking reparations for these allegedly permanent and irreparable damages, and also a commitment from the companies that such events will not take place in the future. In March, environmental watchdog Environment Superintendency (SMA) fined Escondida — the copper interest controlled by BHP — for exceeding maximum levels allowed for water extraction since 2005.

The CDE also asked that the court compel the companies to pay for technical studies, mitigation measures for the damages declared in the lawsuit, environmental management of the affected territory, compensation of the affected components, and any other measure that the court determines, in addition to the payment of the costs of the trial.

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The environmental costs of copper and lithium

Nearly all mining requires large quantities of water. Copper mining is no exception. The copper mining sector in the notoriously dry north of the country puts such a strain on resources that some companies have turned to seawater to respond to the demand. It was predicted in 2019 that the use of seawater would triple in the next 10 years to support the intensification of copper extraction. (As copper is a very efficient conductor, it is used in electric generators, the electrical wiring of cars, and many household appliances.)

When it comes to lithium, Albemarle’s extraction activities are conducted through the older and more cost-effective method of evaporation of lithium-containing brines, which is different from the more expensive mining and processing method. It consists of drilling wells into the salt flats and pumping the brine into various evaporation ponds. Once the water evaporates, the lithium content in the brine is collected and shipped to a chemical plant for processing.

Not all lithium mining strategies are considered sustainable, as many classic mining methods can cause the contamination of groundwater resources for several hundred years. Lithium extraction from brine, a more sustainable alternative, has long been used in Chile. However, the method also requires large quantities of water, making it an additional environmental burden. According to a report by the New York Times, the environmental toll of lithium mining has often been overlooked because “governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.” Chile is the second largest producer of the metal, which is an essential component of electric car batteries and renewable energy.

The Salar de Atacama basin has an area of approximately 18,100 square kilometers. The salt flat of the same name has an area of 3,000 square kilometers and it supplies about a quarter of the world’s lithium. With the rise of electric vehicles, the global scramble for control over such areas and their resources is set to become increasingly aggressive, which could mean steep environmental costs for local populations and ecosystems.

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