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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Authorities May Sue Geothermal Energy Firm

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 1 2009 (IPS) - The Council for the Defense of the State (CDE), the Chilean government’s legal watchdog, is considering bringing a suit for environmental damages against an Italian-Chilean consortium carrying out geothermal studies a few kilometres away from the El Tatio geyser field, a tourist attraction in the northern region of Antofagasta.

Water vapour plume near El Tatio.  Credit: Consejo del Pueblo Lickanantay-Atacameño

Water vapour plume near El Tatio. Credit: Consejo del Pueblo Lickanantay-Atacameño

In early September a water vapour plume spouting to a height of between 30 and 60 metres erupted from one of the exploration wells drilled by the Geotérmica del Norte company to extract and reinject geothermal fluids in order to evaluate the area’s potential for energy generation, and is still spewing out its powerful jet of steam.

“A contingency has occurred in this project that was not foreseen in the environmental impact evaluation process. In a rigorous and careful operation, in line with the normal development of the project, this should never have happened,” said Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte.

Uriarte met on Tuesday with Carlos Mackenney, the head of the CDE, to ask the Council to consider taking legal action against the company for environmental damages.

The CDE, a decentralised public agency independent of government ministries, is directly supervised by the president. Its mission is to defend, represent and advise the state on legal matters affecting its interests.

Mackenney confirmed that the CDE has been studying the case for several days.

In addition to possible legal action by the CDE, the Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) in Antofagasta is prosecuting Geotérmica del Norte for alleged administrative breaches of the company’s environmental permit. The company has been given until Oct. 13 to respond in writing to these charges.

“We are investigating the causes and consequences of this event with the utmost zeal and rigour, and we believe the CDE, within its attributions, can participate in this investigation because it would pursue different responsibilities from those the COREMA is prosecuting at this time,” Uriarte said.

Legal action by the CDE would seek reparations for any environmental harm caused by the company in the Andean highlands area, whose unique ecosystems are dependent on surface and underground water.

Different groups have called for a protected national reserve to be established in the area, which is home to the vicuña, a wild relative of the llama, and the vizcacha, a soft-furred rodent of the chinchilla family.

In July 2008, Geotérmica del Norte began an 18-month exploration project in the Zoquete ravine near the village of Calama, four kilometres away from El Tatio, which is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, with more than 100 springs erupting at an altitude of over 4,000 metres in the Andes mountains.

Owned by the Ministry of National Assets and administered by two local villages of Atacaman indigenous people, El Tatio was declared an area of tourist interest in 2002.

Geotérmica del Norte is controlled by a consortium in which the Italian state electricity company ENEL owns a 51 percent stake, the Chilean state oil company ENAP has 44 percent, and the Chilean state mining company CODELCO owns five percent.

On Sept. 25, the COREMA in Antofagasta, 1,400 kilometres north of Santiago, recommended that the company cease its operations until the anomalous jet of steam was brought under control, a decision Geotérmica del Norte had already made.

“Geothermal energy, and I want to state this categorically, is an unconventional renewable energy source that Chile is interested in developing; we want to carry on promoting and fomenting it,” Uriarte said.

However, geothermal energy is a totally new enterprise in this country, said the minister, who announced that she had approached the United Nations Development Programme (PNUD) for help in contacting international experts able to clarify what has happened.

Chile is rich in this source of thermal energy from the bowels of the earth, as it is located on the Pacific Rim of Fire. Geothermal energy produces some 9,000 megawatts of electricity worldwide, with the United States, the Philippines and Mexico in the lead. Several studies indicate that Chile could potentially produce 3,000 megawatts from this source.

The environment minister assigned full responsibility to the company. “Clearly, something was done differently here than what was laid down in the environmental impact study. It is not the environmental assessment process that is at fault,” Uriarte said.

Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman told IPS in July that the government had taken all the necessary precautions to avoid any environmental damage, including contracting a consultancy firm from the United States to examine the environmental impact study presented by the company.

“I regret (the government’s concern to investigate and punish the environmental damage) has come after this regrettable incident we are facing now,” Julio Ramos, head of the Council of the Lickanantay-Atacameño People, an organisation for this ethnic group in Antofagasta, told IPS.

“We have been opposing the project constantly for three years, and during that time the authorities were never sensitive enough to listen and take action on what we indigenous people were telling them,” said Ramos, whose organisation even sought an injunction from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to stop the project.

Although the company denies any harm to the environment, Ramos says the thunderous noise and the quakes caused by the plume of steam and water are scaring away the animals, and toxic metals dredged up from beneath the earth by the powerful stream of vapour are bound to cause irreversible damage to the local vegetation.

Furthermore, the municipality of Calama is considering closing off access to the geysers for safety reasons, which would cause losses of thousands of dollars to tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama, the starting point for excursions to the El Tatio geyser field.

The indigenous peoples’ council is discussing legal action not only against those who are found guilty of causing the vapour plume, but also against those who authorised the exploration project, Ramos said. It has also called for a protest march to the geysers this Saturday.

“It’s unacceptable, in a country looking forward to the Bicentennial (of its independence from Spain, to be celebrated in 2010) with a renewed vision of modern development, for this sort of irresponsibility to exist with respect to projects that endanger northern Chile’s great natural heritage,” said Ramos, who is adamant that the exploratory work must be permanently stopped.

The Commission on Natural Resources, National Assets and the Environment in the lower house of Congress began debating the situation in El Tatio Wednesday.

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