Mining waste continues to be expelled into the sea

  • A major mining company is dumping its waste into the sea off the Chilean city of Huasco without authorization from environmental authorities.
  • The waste suffocates marine life, destroys habitat and contaminates the water column with toxic heavy metals.
  • Despite sanctions against the company for violating regulations, it continues to dump mining waste into the sea as it has for 40 years.

Little by little, the ocean floor of Chapaco Bay is being blanketed in sludge. Héctor Zuleta is no longer able to harvest shellfish from among the caves, ridges and woodlands of the bay because “everything is clogged up.” Recently, fishers and shellfish gatherers have had to go and find other places to work. Zuleta attributes the reduction in marine resources to the activity of a local iron processing plant, but he’s only confirming what the authorities already suspect.

Compañía Minera del Pacífico (CMP), a member of the mining and steel conglomerate CAP (Compañía de Acero del Pacífico), has been discharging its mining waste into the sea in the port city of Huasco in northern Chile since 1978 — dumping it directly on the beach initially, before piping it out into the bay from 1993 onward. Huasco sits on a patch of the most arid desert in the world, and in 2012 it was declared a “sacrifice zone” due to its high pollution levels.

Huasco, Atacama region, Chile. Image by Claudia Pool/Oceana.

That mining waste is being dumped in the bay has long been an open secret. However, what the inhabitants were not aware of was that CMP, the main iron ore producer on the western coast of South America and the largest steel manufacturer and processor in Chile, was doing so without environmental authorization.

When the marine conservation organization Oceana submitted complaints to the environment superintendent in August 2017, the latter sanctioned the company for 20 regulatory infringements. Today, CMP’s operations are at risk of closure, but while the process of bringing 40 years of pollution to an end gets underway, the company continues to pump waste into the sea.

Waste toxicity

The mining waste constitutes the residue from industrial processes in which chemical methods are used to extract the iron from the mined ore. Due to the toxicity of the waste, its discharge into the sea is prohibited in most countries, with the exceptions of Norway, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Turkey and Chile.

Huasco, Atacama region, Chile. Image by Claudia Pool/Oceana.

Mining waste suffocates seabed organisms such as starfish, physically alters habitats, reduces the abundance of species in marine communities, loads the water column with toxic heavy metals, and increases the bioaccumulation of metals in fish and shellfish — a health risk for humans who eat them. The Chilean Senate listed all of the impacts in a draft bill introduced in 2012 that sought to prohibit marine waste dumping.

The underwater pipeline through which CMP dumps its waste became operational in 1993, and it remains so to this day, 350 meters (1,150 feet) from the coast and 35 meters (115 feet) deep in Chapaco Bay.

Huasco, Atacama region, Chile. Image by Claudia Pool/Oceana.

In 2010, the Environmental Impact Assessment Service approved a project proposed by CMP to expand its facility, but on condition that, within a period of 18 months, it had to submit “a proposal for the technical and environmental improvement of its waste disposal.” Once approved, this system was to have become operational within two years.

Three years later, CMP submitted a proposal for the disposal project to the Environmental Impact Assessment Service. In response, the service made 490 observations for the company to address. However, in 2017, CMP abandoned the project and withdrew it from the Environmental Impact Assessment Service. In doing so, the requirements demanded of it were no longer assessed and the matter was closed.

The illegalities of mining waste

With no new disposal system for its mining waste, CMP has continued to dump its waste material into the sea in the same way it has since 1993. This despite the fact that its license to do so was granted on the condition that it fulfill “all specified prerequisites, requirements and obligations.”

“If these are not complied with, the license doesn’t exist,” Juan Pablo Sanguinetti, a lawyer for the Mining Waste Foundation, told Mongabay Latam.

At the same time, the effluent that CMP dumps into the sea doesn’t meet the conditions specified in the original license granted in 2010.

Pollution in the sea off Huasco. Image by Claudia Pool/Oceana.

Mining waste discharged into the sea must be at least 50 percent solids. Viscous effluent doesn’t settle on the seabed, and instead “disperses in the water causing major polluting effects,” said Victoria Caroca, a chemist at the Mining Waste Foundation. The waste that CMP is dumping doesn’t meet that 50 percent threshold, and is being discharged at “a greater flow [rate] than that which was environmentally approved,” corresponding to 4,700 cubic meters (166,000 cubic feet) per day, according to the environmental superintendent’s sanctions against the company. Between Sept. 6 and 7 in 2016, the superintendent found the average flow rate was twice the authorized amount.

Sanguinetti said discharging of waste into the sea was permitted, “provided it complies with certain conditions” and as long as it was considered “safe.” But a study commissioned in 2015 by the economy and development ministry’s fisheries division revealed that iron oxides in the waste from CMP’s parent company had dissolved in the seawater upon contact with organic matter. Through this dissolution process, trace elements, including manganese, copper, arsenic, vanadium and gallium, were released into the water column.

Residents of Huasco have reported CMP’s waste dumping to the authorities for years, to little avail. Image courtesy of the Olca Archive.

The superintendent is currently evaluating the compliance plan submitted by the company in response to the sanctions against it.

CMP has promised that if this plan is accepted by the authority, it will cease the discharge of waste into the sea within 12 months — the time it takes for the infrastructure to be put in place so that the waste can be disposed of on land. But if the plan is not accepted, the sanction process will run its course, and the authorities may decide to close CMP’s facilities.

While all of these issues are being resolved, waste will continue to be expelled into the sea.

Banner image courtesy of the Olca Archive.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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