Chile mulls making water desalination mandatory for miners

Chile mulls making water desalination mandatory for miners

Mantoverde desalination plant construction phase.  (Image courtesy of Increa)

Chilean lawmakers are discussing a bill that would force mining companies including giants such as BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Rio Tinto to run all of their copper mines in the country using desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean.

The lower chamber of deputies’ proposal, submitted last year, would only be imposed to miners that consume more than 150 liters (40 gallons) of water per second, Noticias de Mineracao reports (in Portuguese).

A number of mining companies have already introduced plans to develop such facilities, including Freeport-McMoRan’s El Abra and its former Candelaria mine, as well as the Radomiro Tomic and Chuquicamata divisions of state-owned copper giant Codelco.

Mining giants Rio Tinto (LON:RIO) and BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) unveiled last year a $3 billion plan for a plant that’ll pump treated seawater 10,000 feet high to their jointly owned Escondida copper mine.

But the one winning the race is Anglo American (LON:AAL), which in November opened the first plant of its kind in the country to ensure enough water for its Mantoverde mine. The operation was until then using freshwater from the Copiapo river, the main water supply for local residents of the Atacama region. Now it is mostly grabbing seawater in a catchment tower, located 300 metres from the seashore, where water is filtrated and purified to extracts residue and salt. This liquid can then be utilized by the Mantoverde operation, which comprises an open pit mine, crushing plants and facilities for processing oxide ores.

In June 2013 Lundin Mining’s Candelaria open pit mine, then owned by Freeport-McMoRan,  began operations at its seawater desalination plant in the Punta Padrones Area, in Caldera City (Atacama), to supply 500 litres per second to the mine via  an 80-kilometre pipeline.

The bill is now in hands of Chile’s  Mining Committee. Local sources in the mining industry say it is very unlikely that it will pass

Companies in Chile are not the only ones concerned about finding means to improve the way they conserve, manage or obtain water. Since 2011, companies around the world have spent more than $84 billion on the task. And overall the mining industry alone, says Global Water Intelligence, is expected to spend more than $12 billion on water this year.