In a time frame no longer than four and a half years, CAP must put an end to the disposal of tailings from its pellet plant into the sea, after operating for more than 40 years in Huasco commune, in Chile’s Atacama region. This was stipulated in the compliance plan that the company submitted before the Superintendence of the Environment (SMA in Spanish), organization that had raised a penalizing procedure after a report presented by Oceana in 2017, in which the marine conservation organization accused CAP of discharging tailings into the sea, even though this practice is banned in Chile.
“The irreversible effects on the environment caused by the disposal of tailings in Chapaco bay demonstrate that this practice is one of the most harmful for the marine environment, and that there are no measures in place to [hold perpetrators] accountable for damages”, said Javiera Calisto, Marine Pollution Campaign Director at Oceana. “This is an iconic step for ocean protection. There are about 2,500 industrial mining centers around the world that dispose of tailings in tailing dams located on land. CAP will shut down one of 18 marine disposal systems for tailings and the only one operating in Chile”, she added.
In January 2018, SMA brought 20 charges against CAP for violating environmental regulations; the most serious one was the disposal of tailings into the sea at a time when the company did not even have environmental permits for their disposal on land. The company started this practice in 1978, and since then has operated on sectorial permits, but in 2010, when General Law 19.300 on the Environment was already enforced, CAP was required to submit a definitive land disposal system to be assessed and obtain the respective environmental qualification, which never happened.
“Further studies are required to determine the real effects caused by CAP at Ensenada Chapaco. The Superintendence can only supervise and penalize violations that have not prescribed. Therefore, the effects caused and described in the compliance plan reflect a limited period of time”, said Calisto. “There are studies provided by the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture that determine that CAP tailings quickly release ore and other trace elements such as manganese, copper, arsenic, vanadium and gallium. In addition, it is concluded that further studies are necessary to be able to assess the real scope of potential impacts of tailings in the sea”, she added.
Disposal of tailings at sea is banned in countries such as Denmark, England, Greece, France, Australia, Canada, United States, Brazil, Russia and China, and is only allowed in states such as Papua New Guinea, Norway and Indonesia.
In Chile, even though legislation only allows tailings to be discarded in land dams, there currently is no regulation that expressly bans this practice at sea. Therefore, Oceana presented a bill in 2015, endorsed by five senators from different parties, to legally ban the disposal of mining waste at sea and prevent other mining companies in the future from engaging in this activity, which damages marine ecosystems.