SANTIAGO – Chile’s mining industry is cheering a decision to drop a glacier-protection bill, saying the proposed rules were conceived to thwart mineral extraction. One academic says the move imperils glacial networks.
Environmental Minister Marcela Cubillos requested the withdrawal of the bill from the lower house last week, nullifying former President Michelle Bachelet’s push for special protections that included banning certain activities on and around glaciers. The slow moving masses of ice high in the Andes Mountains will now come under more general protections for environmentally sensitive areas, newspaper La Tercera cited Cubillos as saying.
"The bill’s hidden objective was to prevent mining from happening, rather than protecting glaciers," Joaquin Villarino, executive president of the Mining Council, which represents large producers in Chile, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "The new law will protect glaciers and all other environmental assets with a more rational and reasonable legislation."
The government’s decision has sparked controversy because some glaciers are outside protected areas and two large copper mines -- owned by Codelco and Anglo American -- sit beside a group of glaciers that feed water to capital Santiago. Chile is the biggest copper-producing nation.
"A glacier on its own doesn’t constitute a protected area," Villarino said. "Authorities need to look for a reasonable balance between the productive sector and civil society because all of Chile can’t be declared a national park."
A combination of rising temperatures and mining activity has sped up melting of the ice that’s been there for thousands of years, according to Francisco Ferrando, a geography professor at University of Chile in Santiago. Olivares Alfa glacier, close to Codelco’s Andina mine, and Juncal Norte, close to Anglo’s Los Bronces, are melting at a faster pace than others further away, he said.
"Withdrawing the bill is very dangerous and it represents an enormous threat to glaciers over the short, medium and long term," Ferrando said. "If there is no protection, those close to mines or to expansion projects will be eliminated."
The 85-page bill sponsored by the government mentions glaciers just three times and does not lay out specific measures to preserve them. The fact that many are not considered protected areas by the Chilean state means that delicate environments such as rock glaciers or permafrost might not be protected by the law, Ferrando said.
In January, Codelco updated expansion plans at Andina to avoid mining on six rock glaciers. Greenpeace said at the time that the measures would do little to protect the environment because even if the company doesn’t mine directly on glaciers, dust and vibrations from mining activity also harm the environment.
“We need a new law that takes the original bill and improves it by protecting the glaciers, but also the ecosystem and the atmosphere around them,” Ferrando said. “Glaciers are key contributors to mitigate the effects of climate change.”