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Last Monday, April 17th, the Committee of Ministers approved without hesitations and unanimously the “Los Bronces Integrado” project of the British mining company Anglo American, which, with USD 3.5 billion on the table and the promise to clean up the air of the Metropolitana region, managed to convince all the ministerial departments from the Committee, including the Ministries of Economy, Finance, Health, Agriculture, and Environment. The latter was in charge of presiding over the Committee and following the guidelines of La Moneda that were publicly presented by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Economy, Mario Marcel, and Nicolás Grau, respectively.

The approval of the project of Anglo American Sur —a subsidiary company, in which the copper mining company Codelco has a co-ownership of 29.5 %— puts an end to the illusion that this Government would be “Chile’s first ecological Government” and that the climate crisis would be the main focus of this administration. About a year ago, when the Government of Gabriel Boric started, it was expected a change of course with a different policy outlook, in which the value of the ecosystems and environmental conservation would be predominant when evaluating projects. Or, at least, that was what the President proclaimed when he named Maisa Rojas, a specialist in climate change who came from the scientific world, as Minister of Environment.

 

The President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, and the Minister of the Environment, Maisa Rojas.

 

Undoubtedly, the approval of the “Los Bronces Integrado” project distances Minister Rojas from her scientific position, the concern over the climate crisis, and the destruction of the water sources (glaciers). These impacts weren’t properly evaluated in the environmental assessment process of this project. Due to the lack of technical aspects in the evaluation of the damages on nearby glaciers, we, as Fundación Plantae and Fundación Terram, notified this to the Minister of Environment through the text “Los impactos sobre los glaciares del proyecto Los Bronces Integrado que Anglo American excluyó de su área de influencia” [The impacts of the Los Bronces Integrado project on the glaciers that Anglo American excluded from its area of influence]. This text was sent to the Committee of Ministers in April 2022, before the rejection of the Servicio de Evaluación Ambienta (SEA) [Environmental Assessment Service] to the Estudio de Impacto Ambiental (EIA) [Environmental Impact Study] presented by the British mining company. On that occasion, the environmental agency rejected the project; nevertheless, it didn’t consider the impact on glaciers in its arguments. The reasons for turning down the project were the lack of determination of the area of influence of the air quality and the lack of enough information to rule out the risk for the health of the population.

 

High altitude winds that could be transporting particulate matter rise in the surface area of Los Bronces towards the Olivares Alfa and Paloma Norte glaciers, among others. They are located at the headwaters of the Olivares River, one of the main tributaries of the Colorado River and Maipo River and in the sector where the largest glacier area of the Metropolitana region is concentrated.

 

Decisions based on misinformation

 

Even knowing that the “Los Bronces Integrado” project will be voted on in the first half of 2023, in March the Executive Director of SEA, led by Valentina Durán, requested a report to the Undersecretary of Environment, Maximiliano Proaño, regarding the appeals filed against the Exempt Resolution where SEA qualified the EIA of the project unfavorably. Unexpectedly, the report submitted by the Undersecretary (ordinary official letter No. 230716 of March 1st, 2023) turned out to be deficient. It also had several inaccuracies in determining the area of influence of the project and lacked scientific and technical background that would validate its expressed “conformity”.

The report made by the Undersecretary was essential to endorse the proposals of the international mining company and a slap on the back to the citizens’ complaints that aimed at the protection of water resources and the damage to the uncovered glaciers near the mining project. Once the ordinary official letter submitted by Proaño to the SEA was known, Fundación Plantae and Fundación Terram once again sent him and the Committee of Ministers a technical text and a paper1, which presented the mistakes of the Undersecretary in having expressed his “conformity” regarding the mechanic of high winds, and warned that “the Holder has not performed the necessary and requested modeling of high altitude winds, which implies the recognition of an area of influence (of the project) different from what should be considered, and the potential impact of the project over uncovered glaciers that are important for the water supply of the Metropolitana region, especially in the current drought and water shortages scenario. Also, these glaciers are part of the announced Glaciares de Santiago National Park.

To summarize, the report of modeling of high altitude winds that we recommended to check in the first instance contemplated the following conclusions:

  1. Presence of northwest wind on the surface of the Olivares Alfa glacier.
  2. Presence of northwest wind over 700 meters above the surface level in the Los Bronces and Andina mine (high altitude wind).
  3. Total absence of a study focused on the high altitude winds by the Holder.
  4. Potential risk of dragging contaminants and particulate matter from the Los Bronces and Los Bronces Integrado mines to the glaciers at the southeastern of the mines due to the presence of northwest high altitude wind.
  5. The area of influence of the Los Bronces project must be extended to include, at least, the Olivares Alfa, Paloma Norte, Altar Sur, and Paloma Sur uncovered glaciers.

Despite the recommendations, the technical-scientific information was clearly overlooked by the Ministerio del Medio Ambiente (MMA) [Ministry of Environment] and its undersecretary, so a different result couldn’t be expected in the Committee of Ministers that Maisa Rojas leads. This could have been a sign of what would happen later in the Committee’s vote on April 17th, in which the technical arguments and the rigorous review of the “Los Bronces Integrado” project weren’t a priority, and the citizens’ complaints that were supported by publications and scientific evidence, especially regarding the glaciers, wind of altitude dynamic and area of influence, were ignored.

Although it would seem a trivial issue, the observations of the Undersecretary of Environment were key to installing a guideline that favored Anglo American’s intentions. A Plan de Compensación (PDC) [compensation plan] was enough to convince all the involved ministers. This plan promises to protect the health of the population by compensating 150 % of the air emissions with the replacement of 70,000 wood-burning stoves in the Metropolitana region.  

The statement of the Committee of Ministers states that the decision to approve the “Los Bronces Integrado” project was made along with a series of “demanding environmental conditions” that would raise the standards and “measures that allow the close follow-up and monitoring of the water resource and the protected species of flora and fauna near to the project and nearby glaciers”; however, this is clearly just a headline. None of the mentioned measures, such as the compensation of 150 % of the emissions and the “Plan de Alerta Temprana de glaciares” [plan oriented to avoid exceeding the impact evaluated and approved in the RCA], reduce the environmental impact of “Los Bronces Integrado,” but rather compensates the impact through indirect measures that are difficult to implement, as in the case of replacing wood-burning stoves with electric ones.

 

Photo taken in an area near the summit of La Paloma hill. Particulate Matter (PM) transported by northwest wind from the Los Bronces/Andina sector to the southeast, which is indeed transporting PM to the area of Paloma Norte glacier (in the photo) and the flank that connects the basins of the Blanco and Olivares rivers.

 

Meanwhile, regarding the impact on glaciers, the company includes three points that are undoubtedly insufficient and ambiguous and refer to modeling sedimentable particulate matter at the stations already predefined by the owner, because what is ideally required is to periodically measure the depositions on nearby uncovered glaciers (for example, Olivares Alfa glacier) and with immediate public access to the data. Before the project was approved unanimously, the ministers should have requested researchers without any conflicts of interest to verify simulations of high altitude winds beyond the stations defined by the company, i.e., outside the proposed area of influence (AI). Finally, they mentioned a “Plan de Alerta Temprana de glaciares”, which to date is an enigma and only a play on words that actually says nothing. It’s evident that any measure that involves “self-regulatory” or “self-monitoring” will be questionable or, at least, will give the right to doubt, and this isn’t an exception. The size of the threat to the ecosystems and water suggests that we confront and quantify the possible impacts with an approach very different from the one proposed by the Committee. No demand or condition can repair the damage that the expansion of the Los Bronces mine will cause to the glaciers and the biodiversity.

Finally, at Fundación Plantae and Fundación Terram, we believe that the decision of the Committee of Ministers, their silence after voting, and the declarations of the Minister of Environment a day later, in which she only justified the Committee’s decision by saying that people’s health will be protected, demonstrate the little —real— interest of the ministry in the climate change effects, such as the accelerated melting process of the glaciers, the national water shortage, and the conservation of the Andean ecosystems. This situation is even more concerning if we consider that the “Los Bronces Integrado” project of Anglo American Sur S.A. is next to a protected area, Yerba Loca Nature Sanctuary, and the 142,000 hectares fiscal property “Río Colorado”, in which is located the announced Glaciares de Santiago National Park, impacting the main object of conservation of the current, and also future, protected area: the glacier ecosystems.

 

As civil society organizations concerned about environmental public policies, the conservation of the ecosystems, and the climate change effects in our country, we believe that this project should have been rejected by the Committee of Ministers, based on the scientific evidence provided. We also emphasize the necessity to have a Glaciers Law that efficiently protects these ecosystems. For now, we are looking forward to what will happen in the Segundo Tribunal Ambiental [Second Environment Court], following the process so that guarantees are provided in favor of biodiversity and high mountain ecosystems.

 

Sign by

Fundación Plantae and Fundación Terram

Reference:

  • ¹ Barandun M., Bravo C., Grobety B., et al., Anthropogenic influence on surface changes at the Olivares glaciers; Central Chile, Science of the Total Environment (2021). Link