Xstrata daming more rivers, this time in Chile

SWISS FIRM PROPOSING AYSEN DAM IN CHILE HAS QUESTIONABLE HISTORY

Xstrata’s Track Record In Australia Shows Scant Concern For Environmental Issues

(May 24, 2007) Xstrata, criticized heavily by a growing number of Chileans opposing the Swiss mining company’s plan to build a large hydroelectric dam in northern Patagonia (Region XI), is no stranger to controversy – especially when it comes to rivers.

In recent months the mining company has struggled to gain Chilean government approval for its plan to dam the Cuervo River. Hoping to begin construction on a proposed 600 MW dam sometime next year, Xstrata submitted its requisite Environmental Impact Study (EIS) this past January (ST, Jan. 5). The EIS did not impress Chile’s National Environmental Committee (CONAMA), which refused to even consider the “insufficient” report (ST, March 22-23). CONAMA did, however, invite the company to submit a second EIS, something Xstrata promises to do.
Local activists and environmentalists, meanwhile, want to send the Swiss mining company packing. Not only would Xstrata’s proposed dam be environmentally hazardous to the pristine wilderness area, but – given a barrage of seismic activity that’s affected the zone in recent months – it would also be just plain dangerous, say opponents.
“To do that, to build (the dam) right now would be a time bomb,” Hipolito Medina of the environmental group Ecosistemas recently told the Patagonia Times. “You don’t need to be an engineer, a geologist, a sorcerer or anything to realize that (the Xstrata plan) is a real danger.”
But criticism against the company is not limited to southern Chile. On the opposite side of the world – in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT) – Xstrata currently finds itself at the center of a different, yet somewhat similar, controversy.
Roughly 80 kilometers south of a town called Borroloola, along the McArthur River, Xstrata owns and operates one of the world’s largest zinc mines. Its McArthur River Mine opened in 1993 and, until last year, was an underground facility. In March 2006, however, the company applied for permission to expand operations into open pit-style mining. A new open-pit facility, said Xstrata, would extend the mine’s production life.
The proposed expansion, however, has attracted stiff opposition because the site for the open pit mine is already occupied – by the McArthur River itself. The company’s solution? Just move the river!
Australian authorities last year granted Xstrata permission to do just that. In fact, construction on the expansion project has already begun.
Opponents of the project, however, refuse to back down. They say the project will be environmentally devastating. The planned river diversion will directly affect downstream ecosystems. Pollution from the zinc and lead mine, furthermore, is likely to seep into the river. Worse, the McArthur floods almost yearly.
Also fighting the project are the region’s Traditional Owners: indigenous residents who have property claims to the area in question. In an effort to block the proposed expansion, a group of Traditional Owners took the case to Australia’s Supreme Court. Last month the Court ruled in their favor, declaring that NT’s approval process was flawed. Sadly, one of the leaders of the Owners group, a 43-year-old man named Mr. Timothy, died just two weeks before the ruling.
The NT government, however, reacted quickly, hammering through emergency legislation that – despite the objections of several indigenous lawmakers – overturned the Supreme Court ruling. The vote took place two days before Timothy’s funeral.
“It was the lowest form of disrespect against indigenous people in this country,” said NT lawmaker Barbara McCarthy, sister of the recently deceased mine opposition leader. “The first thing that people felt was a great sense of hurt, a great sense of injustice, insult, and felt that even before this man had been buried, they’d been kicked again.”
Santiago Times,  Benjamin Witte (benwitte@santiagotimes.cl)

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