Court Extends Groundwater Extraction Halt

Local Community Prevails In Aquifer Protection, Temporarily

16 Jan 2022 by The Water Diplomat

On the 31st of December, Chile’s First Environmental Court issued a second 90-day ruling preventing BHP’s Cerro Colorado mine from drawing water from a nearby aquifer.

This ruling is the latest development in a five-year legal battle related to the mine, and it follows a period in which copper mining across Chile has been faced by droughts and receding groundwater levels.

In August 2021, the court had ordered a 90-day halt to water extraction in response to complaints from local communities that water pumping for the mine’s operations had dried out high altitude wetlands and polluted water used by indigenous groups.  After BHP challenged this ruling, the mine was given a reprieve from the court in September, allowing it to extract 54 litres per second from the Lagunillas aquifer – one-half of he 108 litres per second that the mine had originally been entitled to. 

An environmental impact study of the mine submitted to the environmental evaluation service in 2013 was approved in 2021 by the regional environmental evaluation committee, paving the way for full approval of the mine’s operations.

However, this decision was challenged by a local landowner on the basis that the environmental impact assessment had not taken sufficient account of the effect of groundwater extraction on a local wetland. The court had ruled that precautions were required regarding groundwater extraction and that the situation with regard to the critical and vulnerable water bearing layers in the Andes is unchanged. 

The magistrates argued that despite the knowledge of the potential harm to the aquifer, there were as yet no apparent measures taken to prevent negative effects on the aquifer by the groundwater extraction.