The Beacon

Patagonia’s Penguins at Risk from Proposed Coal Mine

Magellanic penguins in Chile. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month Chile’s government approved a controversial coal mine project in southern Patagonia’s Riesco Island, despite opposition from local residents and environmental groups, including Oceana.

Oceana presented a report to Chile’s environmental ministry outlining the threats facing mammals and birds in the region, including the area’s most emblematic seabird, the Magellanic penguin. The threats from the mine include heavy metal pollution (such as mercury), oil spills, and boat collisions with marine mammals.

Riesco Island is part of Chile’s Alacalufes National Reserve, which is home to an important colony of Magellanic penguins – around 10,000 of the seabirds live around the island. The island and its surroundings are also home to at least 27 species of bird and 7 marine mammal species, including humpback whales. One of the region’s waterways, Otway sound, is one of the only places on the Chilean coast where the Chilean dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and southern dolphin can all be found.

The heavy metals released by coal mining would affect seabirds’ reproduction, especially the penguins. Oil spills can contaminate the eggs, cause death by inhalation and ingestion, and loss of feather waterproofing, which can lead to hypothermia.

Plus, Chile does not have a contingency plan to treat animals affected by oil spills. According to our report, of 76 penguins treated for oil contamination in 2006 in Patagonia’s Madalena Island, 22 died. And in 2004, an oil spill in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego led to the loss of 88% of the adults in a colony of rock cormorants.

In addition, mining would increase the large vessel traffic in the Francisco Coloane marine protected area, which is habitat for at least nine marine mammal species, such as humpback whales, sei whales and minke whales. The large vessels must navigate through Patagonia’s narrow canals, putting the whales at a higher risk of collision.

Oceana recently asked Chile’s environmental ministry to measure the mercury levels of the coal of Isla Riesco, which would help determine the mercury pollution that would result in the places in the country where the coal is used in thermoelectric power plants. A preliminary report indicated the presence of several dangerous chemicals including arsenic, mercury and manganese in higher than acceptable levels.

Our colleagues in Chile are working hard to promote renewable energy; We’ll be sure to keep you posted as this story evolves.

If you want to help, head over to change.org, where you can sign a petition to help us stop the coal mine and protect penguins in Riesco Island.


Browse by Date