SANTIAGO – BHP's Escondida, the world's largest copper mine, said on Tuesday it had dropped plans to continue drawing water from the Atacama salt flat, relieving pressure on the parched desert basin, home to top lithium miners SQM and Albemarle.
BHP has long pumped water from Atacama's aquifers to feed operations at its sprawling Escondida mine. But shortly after applying to renew those permits in 2017, authorities warned the aquifer was overdrawn, stalling the process.
The global miner said on Tuesday it would now substitute its pumping from Atacama with desalinated water from its coastal Chilean plants.
BHP's decision is a step toward reducing pumping pressure on the vast, lithium-rich salt flat. The basin sits amid the world's driest desert, where annual rainfall is often measured in millimeters.
Soaring demand for ultralight battery metal lithium has raised questions about whether Atacama can support future levels of production along with the needs of nearby copper mines, a booming tourism industry and indigenous communities.
"BHP's decision advances by 10 years its commitment to stop extracting high Andean water for Escondida," the miner said in the statement. It had previously said it would shut off the taps in 2030.
BHP said its decision had taken into account conversations with indigenous communities around the flat.
Antofagasta's Zaldivar mine is also seeking to renew permits to draw water from the flat.
Antofagasta, which co-owns Zaldivar with Barrick Gold, did not immediately respond to requests for comments on BHP's decision.