Chilean fishermen fight to block USD 1 billion desalination project

A rendering of the Aconcagua Desalination Plant

A group of Chilean fishermen has taken court action to stop a USD 1 billion (EUR 888 million) water desalination project on Chile’s central coast after preventing access to the construction site for the past two months over fears that the plant’s operations will pollute the waters in which they work.

The Aconcagua Desalination Plant under construction near the coastal town of Quintero aims to supply fresh water to mining companies such as Anglo American - an investor in the failed Pebble Mine project in Alaska - and some 40,000 inhabitants in the interior of the central region. It would include a 105-kilometer aqueduct to pipe the water inland, aiming to provide respite to an area – and to a mining industry as a whole – that has suffered from extreme drought over the past 14 years.

Chile is a major copper mining country – the red metal represents over half of the nation’s exports – but it faces a conundrum: Chilean mining operations require significant amounts of water but often operate in arid desert locations in the central and northern parts of the country.

Complicating the matter, the desalination project is progressing in a “sacrifice zone” – an area where residents are vulnerable to high pollution levels and hazardous materials, adversely impacting their health. This is mainly due to decades of unchecked industrial development in the form of coal-fired electric plants, smelters, petrochemical development, and coal handling at the local Ventanas port, among other locations.

Within this context, some fishers’ unions doubt the plant’s safety.

“We will not let the desalination plant lay its pipelines here. For years, we have had coal spills, spills of polluting liquids, [and] a saturation of ships that rip our nets and continue to deteriorate the bay,” Hugo Poblete, head of the Bahía Narau Fishermen’s Federation, told local paper El Mercurio. “We are beginning to [replenish] the bay with oysters, clams, [and] abalone. Quintero has given a lot to the country, and in return, we have only been plundered.”

Poblete said he worries the desalination project will increase the salinity of the sea and harm the ecosystem in an area already suffering from various types of pollution – a concern also shared by some local authorities.

A company called Aguas Pacífico, which Brazilian firm Fondo Patria Investment owns, is overseeing the project. Fondo Patria has a project portfolio of more than USD 15.8 billion (EUR 14 billion), El Mercurio reported.

Although Aguas Pacífico has been in a position to start construction since 2018 – when it obtained the required environmental qualification resolution, maritime concession, and approval of an environmental impact study – the fishermen filed for protection against the company in a federal court of appeals of Valparaíso, saying the project lacked the necessary permits.

The court rejected the claim, but an appeal to Chile's Third Chamber of the Supreme Court found the case admissible for processing.

Aguas Pacífico insists it has taken ...

Photo courtesy of Aguas Pacífico

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