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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Patagonia Dams On Hold

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Nov 20 2008 (IPS) - Environmental groups in Chile welcomed the decision by the HidroAysén energy company to seek a nine-month extension of the environmental impact assessment phase of a controversial project to build five hydroelectric dams in wilderness areas in the south of the country.

River in Chilean Patagonia. Credit: John Spooner/

River in Chilean Patagonia. Credit: John Spooner/

“We are pleased, particularly because our view that it is a misguided project, and that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) was inadequate, has been reinforced,” Sara Larraín, head of the Sustainable Chile Programme, told IPS.

Larraín’s environmental organisation forms part of the Patagonia Defence Council (CDP), an umbrella group of 50 Chilean and international organisations opposed to the HidroAysén dams due to concerns over environmental and social impacts and effects on the tourism industry.

On Wednesday Nov. 19, Hidroaysén asked the regional branch of CONAMA – the government environment authority – in the southern province of Aysén to extend the EIA approval process until August 2009, and the request was immediately accepted.

HidroAysén is owned by Colbún, a Chilean utility that holds 49 percent of the shares, and Spanish electricity giant Endesa, which plan to invest some 3.2 billion dollars in the five large hydroelectric power stations along the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Aysén, to generate 2,750 megawatts of electricity.

The dams would flood nearly 6,000 hectares of pristine forest in Chile’s Patagonia region, considered one of the world’s last great swaths of wilderness, and the initiative would require 2,000 kilometres of power lines to take electricity from Aysén to Santiago, across eight of the country’s provinces.

The 10,500-page EIA presented by HidroAysén in mid-August cost 12 million dollars and took the Chilean firms Poch and EPS, as well as Sweco, a Swedish company, three years to complete.

Of the 36 public agencies that received copies of the EIA, 32 issued observations, which were compiled in a “consolidated report to request clarifications, rectifications and/or expanded information”, referred to by the Spanish acronym ICSARA.

Although the government reported that more than 3,000 observations were submitted, the company says it received 2,643.

On Nov. 13, the regional branch of CONAMA in Aysén notified the company that the deadline for responding to the ICSARA report was Nov. 20. In response, HidroAysén asked for an extension of the process.

Nov. 24 was the date set for the end of the citizen participation phase of the project, during which citizen groups and environmental organisations submitted their views on the dams and the EIA.

“This is the biggest and most complex project that Chile’s environmental institutions have faced,” said HidroAysén general manager Hernán Salazar in a statement to the press. “Because it is of enormous significance to the future of the country’s energy supply, the technical agencies and authorities, as well as the citizens of Aysén and of Chile as a whole, must become familiar with the project.”

“Requesting an extension is a normal option in this kind of process and will provide the time necessary to complement the information supplied in the environmental impact study,” said Salazar.

In October, Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte said the EIA did not fulfil requirements.

But her statements were played down by officials in favour of the dams, like Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman and Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma.

Tokman said the “critical” aspect of the project is not the dams themselves but the 2,000-km power line, whose EIA will be presented next year.

The company, meanwhile, questioned the observations set forth by the public agencies. Colbún general manager Bernardo Larraín Matte said that “if we draw an analogy, the SAG (Chile’s agriculture and livestock sanitary authority) used a ruler (to estimate the surface area to be flooded), while HidroAysén used a laser precision instrument.”

Before CONAMA provided the company with the ICSARA report, Chile’s water authority, the DGA, had already thrown into doubt the feasibility of the project by turning down an application for water rights presented by the company, an issue that may be worked out separately in the courts.

The DGA was one of the public agencies that had the harshest words for HidroAysén.

“The environmental impact study that was presented lacks relevant, essential information needed to understand the project, correctly assess the various environmental components, predict and evaluate its impacts, and consequently verify” that the company will deal with any problems, the DGA said.

The national geology and mining authority, SERNAGEOMIN, meanwhile, stated that “the geological, hydrogeological and geomorphological information and the studies on natural risks associated with geological phenomena that are presented in the (EIA) are insufficient to make an environmental assessment of the project.”

Sara Larraín said “we were pleasantly surprised at the consensus between and coherence of the views expressed by the public agencies, which did a fantastic job. This process helped shore up their legitimacy and credibility, and confidence in them has increased.”

Nevertheless, the Patagonia Defence Council wondered why the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet decided to extend the environmental impact assessment phase rather than reject the project outright, given that 11 public agencies concluded that the EIA “lacks relevant and essential information.”

Dams are currently at the centre of a controversy in Chile, with activists and local communities complaining about the environmental effects and the impact on tourism, while others argue that failure to build the hydroelectric stations would jeopardise energy security in a country that depends on imports of natural gas, coal and oil for 72 percent of the electricity in consumes.

“HidroAysén is a strategic project, aimed at furnishing Chile with a source of clean, renewable and lower-cost energy that contributes to sustainable development,” according to the firm.

A survey commissioned by the company itself, the results of which were released in October, found that 51 percent of respondents were in favour of the dams and 29 percent were opposed.

On the other hand, the La Tercera newspaper reported on Nov. 16 that British consultant Simon Anholt, the leading expert on place branding, who was hired by the Chilean government, reached the conclusion that the dams run counter to the image that Chile is trying to project, of a country that protects its natural heritage.

Anholt reportedly expressed that view in a private meeting with business and opinion leaders in Chile.

The company, however, believes the final decision on the project will be reached by the government of President Bachelet’s successor, who will take office in March 2010.

“The Patagonia Defence Council will continue working until the project is definitively shelved and ruled out as part of the country’s future,” said Sara Larraín.

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