Chile set to make mining desalination mandatory

Chile set to make mining desalination mandatory

This is how dry Chile’s north can be. From WikiMedia Commons

Chile’s lower house members have submitted a draft bill aimed to make the use of desalinated water in mining processes mandatory, in an effort to deal with the decreasing supply of the vital element and provide a solution to the industry mounting power needs.

In a press release (in Spanish) the lawmakers said the bill would force miners that consume over 150 liters of water per second to incorporate desalinated seawater into their operations.

“Communities in Atacama, the world's driest desert, often feel they have to compete with mining companies for their water supply (…) a president who vows to fight for the poorest, cannot sit back and do nothing about it,” a high-level mining industry executive speaking on condition of anonymity, told in November.

A number of mining companies have already introduced desalination plants into their operations, including BHP”s Escondida and Freeport-McMoRan’s El Abra, as well as the Radomiro Tomic and Chuquicamata divisions of state-owned copper giant Codelco.

The problem is that the costs of desalination in the country have escalated in recent years to the point that it is now twice more expensive than in the United States.

The cost of removing all the salt from seawater in Chile is around US$5 per cubic metre, while in the US costs only $2.3 and $2.8 in Mexico.

This has brought the mining industry's energy operating costs in Chile as high as representing 14% of total production costs, which is equivalent to 27 cents per pound of metal, the highest level registered in the South American country since 2000.

Under the current law, mining companies have the right to use any water they find while conducting activities. But as the resource becomes more and more scarce, especially in Chile’s arid north where most mining takes place, authorities have began to look into reforming the country’s water code, which dates from General Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 military regime.

The mining industry, which uses significant quantities of water, is one of the main pillars of the Chilean economy, with copper exports accounting for one-third of government revenue.

Chile’s Copper Comission —Cochilco— said Tuesday that demand for fresh water from the copper sector is expected to grow 38% by 2021.