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Oceana Magazine Winter 2010: Saving Punta de Choros

By Suzannah Evans

Oceana launches a new campaign to prevent the construction of three coal-fired power plants in one of Chile's most diverse ecosystems.

Along Chile’s north-central coast, the ocean’s currents push a swell of nutrient-rich, cold water from the depths to the surface. This natural phenomenon, known as a coastal upwelling, occurs in a few places around the world where the conditions are just right, and fosters a bonanza of marine life.

At this particular upwelling, near Punta de Choros, the plankton-rich waters are buoyed by the Humboldt current coursing northward from Antarctica. The upwelling supports a huge community of wildlife. Eighty percent of the world’s endangered Humboldt penguins breed here. Marine mammals that would normally migrate in search of food stay here, including a permanent population of bottlenose dolphins. The incredibly rare blue whale can be seen here, as well as endangered diving petrels.

One of Chile’s most important fisheries, the Chilean abalone – a mollusc also known as loco – is located here, supplying as much as 60 percent of the country’s abalone. Additionally, the region’s stunning vistas and guaranteed wildlife sightings make it a prime tourist destination.

This vibrant area is already partially protected as a marine protected area, Chile’s first, designated in 2005. But the marine reserve around the islands of Choros and Damas isn’t enough to protect this natural spectacle.

Developers have proposed building three thermoelectric, coal-fired power plants less than 12 miles south of Punta de Choros and the marine reserve. These plants pose a multitude of threats to a region that is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Located upstream from Punta de Choros, emissions from the plants would arrive at the upwelling area in a matter of minutes. Oil spills from ships carrying coal to the plants would seep there in a couple of hours, and the local currents would retain the pollution within the area. In the meantime, mercury emissions from the plants would contaminate the Chilean abalone and damage an industry critical to the region’s economic health.

But the most immediate damage could come from the anti-fouling chemicals the plants would dump into the ocean every day, along with thousands of gallons of hot water, according to Dr. Carlos Gaymer, a professor with the Universidad Católica del Norte in La Serena, Chile and Université Laval, Québec, who has studied the potential effects of power plants on the Punta de Choros area.

Thermoelectric plants like the ones proposed here dump huge amounts of water that is 10 degrees warmer than the cool waters of the Punta de Choros upwelling. According to Gaymer, the hot water and anti-fouling chemicals is a lethal mix to Chilean abalone. In trials run by Dr. Katherina Brokordt at the Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones in Coquimbo, Chile, using temperatures below what would actually come from the plants, all the abalone died within weeks.

“We know that they don’t have more than three weeks,” Gaymer said. “After more than three weeks, all the marine life will be killed – and they were very conservative in their test.”

In September, Gaymer joined Oceana’s board of directors and senior staff on a day trip to Punta de Choros, where the group witnessed firsthand the region’s stunning biodiversity. Gaymer presented his research on the devastating effects the power plants would have on wildlife, the surrounding habitat and human health. 

The arguments against building the coal plants in such a pristine area are strong, but Gaymer acknowledges the challenges.

“It’s clear to every person that sees all these arguments, they all say the same thing, it’s crazy to do something like that here. This place is too important for threatening in this way,” he said. “The problem is that political decisions sometimes say the opposite.”




Oceana’s Campaign

Oceana and the local community’s fight to protect the health and ecology of Punta de Choros from  the development of three coal-fired power plants met with early success in November when the government of Chile declined to permit Suez Energy to build a port necessary for delivering coal to the proposed Barrancones plant.

"This is an encouraging sign in our fight against the serious damage that the proliferation of these power plants can lead to in Chile,” said Alex Muñoz, vice president for Oceana in South America. “Coal is one of the most polluting energy sources in the world and we should start to replace it with cleaner alternatives.”

In addition to halting the development of power plants near Punta de Choros, Oceana also seeks to set standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and mercury and the use and discharge of water from existing coal-fired power plants in Chile, which currently has no applicable standards. Since 2005, the Chilean government has approved 11 projects for power plants currently in various stages of construction, and another 11 projects are being evaluated.