Canada’s Noranda Corp. has submitted an environmental-impact study for what is being billed as the largest foreign-investment project in the history of Chile—a $2.75 billion aluminum complex that would include a plant, a port and three hydroelectric dams.
The project, called Alumysa, targets the Puerto Aysen region just north of the central Patagonian city of Coyhaique. Because of that, it is drawing fire from environmental groups, who have dubbed it Tyrannosaurus. Chile’s Patagonian region, rich in mountains, lakes, rivers and temperate rainforest, has become one of the country’s ecotourism meccas.
“This project is simply too big for the region,” says Peter Hartmann, director of the Coyhaique office of the Chilean Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna (Codeff), a top environmental group here. “It would eliminate such alternative development options for the area as ecotourism, and it would generate thousands of tons of dangerous toxic waste in an area known for its pristine character.”
Noranda submitted its impact study to the Regional Environment Commission (Corema) of the 11th Region. Plans call for the construction of an aluminum reduction plant, port facilities and three hydroelectric stations with a total installed capacity of 1,154 megawatts.
The plant would churn out 440,000 tons of aluminum a year, making it one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world and significantly increasing Noranda’s current annual worldwide production of 240,000 tons.
Company officials presented the 24-volume impact study to Corema on Aug. 29. They say it cost $2 million, took two years to complete and involved more than 50 specialists, providing a thorough examination of all impacts and identifying steps to address them.
“This EIS constitutes a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the 11th Region,” says Robert Biehl, general manager of Noranda’s subsidiary in Chile. “It includes multiple variables, such as the quality of the air and the water, a complete analysis of the soil, flora and fauna and of the marine life as well as the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the Chacabuco Bay region.”
Given the energy-intensive nature of aluminum manufacturing, it is not surprising Noranda chose the location it did—close to potential hydropower sources. But the area also is highly valued by environmentalists who argue that in its quest for foreign investment, Chile is placing its green resources at risk.
They object that the project would flood a vast area (23,717 acres, or 9,598 hectares); generate abundant waste; damage aquatic life by diminishing water quality; and produce air pollution and acid rain by emitting such contaminants as aluminum dust, flouride dust and gases, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
Codeff has joined numerous local and national groups in a broad campaign of opposition. An immediate battleground is the public- comment period now underway. Alumysa’s impact statement was formally placed on file on Sept. 7. Citizens have 60 days to register concerns or complaints—a timeframe some consider far too small given the project’s scale.
“This project really encompasses about 10 large projects, not just one,” says Mauricio Fierro, president of the Geo Austral environmental group here. “But we only have the same amount of time to analyze it that we do for even the smallest of projects.”
Among those doing the analyzing will be the Chilean Salmon Farmers Association, which fears trouble for its industry if adequate steps aren’t taken to prevent water pollution.
Others, such as longtime Coyhaique fisherman Arellano Guzman, have far broader concerns.
“We have lived here for centuries in a clean environment...a beautiful place without any of the noise, pollution and other problems created by modern society,” says Guzman, 56. “If [the project] happens, it could be the end of the Patagonia we love.”
Biehl says he respects such concerns, but he insists “the highest technology available” will be used to control emissions.
He also stresses the potential economic benefits. The EIS says Alumysa will directly employ an average 3,100 people in the construction phase and 1,100 permanently once the complex is in operation.
“This region is the poorest in Chile, and with the lowest levels of development,” Biehl argues. “The indirect benefits from the project will help them a lot. For example, our port will make it faster and easier for the people living nearby to transport things.”
A final government decision on Alumysa is not expected for nine months to a year. Noranda executives say the project also will hinge on whether one or more investment partners can be found to help secure the necessary financing.
- James Langman