Chile’s Supreme Court ordered a halt to the project for the thermoelectric Castilla power plant in the country’s northern Atacama region, rejecting the environmental impact studies separately approved for the plant and a port connected to the project.
The ruling, made public Aug. 28, is not appealable. It stated that “if the projects for the plant and the port had been presented together — given their dependence on each other — there would clearly have been a detailed description of the transfer of coal and oil from one facility to another, which would first help accurately determine the influence area of the project, then know the background for prediction, identification, and interpretation of its environmental impact, i.e., the disturbance of the environment, directly or indirectly caused by a project or activity, prior to its execution.”
“It would also allow the public to use the procedures for participation in the project evaluation, because each time [questions were] asked or situations were observed regarding the activities together, the response was that each project was independent of the other,” read the judgment, which upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals of Antofagasta that ruled against environmental approval for both projects, after receiving a lawsuit filed in February 2011 by a group of local residents of Totoral, in Atacama.
The thermoelectric plant, set to be the country’s largest, was initially rejected by the environmental authorities under the administration of former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), which had labeled it as “polluting.” Nevertheless, the current administration reduced that categorization to a “nuisance,” a change considered illegal by the Antofagasta court.
If the companies in charge of the construction of the plant and the port, the Brazilian firm MPX and the German E.ON, wish to continue the project, which costs US$5 billion, they will have to present a new environmental impact study for both projects together, the Supreme Court stated.
Energy Minister Jorge Burnster said the ruling “puts some uncertainty into the country’s energy capacity,” and warned of a possible increase in electricity prices. The National Mining Society stated the decision will restrict the power supply for mining projects in the north of the country, including the controversial Pascua Lama mine, and will slow investments.
For Lucio Cuenca, attorney at the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, or OLCA, the ruling “is historic, not only because it reaffirms the irregularities already determined by the Court of Appeals of Antofagasta, but also because it takes into account safeguarding of the constitutional guarantee of having a pollution free environment and proactively protecting it; that’s never been seen before.”
Approximately 40 percent of the energy produced in Chile depends on coal and petrol thermoelectric plants, which are heavy polluters. The Castilla plant would meet 10-15 percent of the country’s energy needs.
Some experts, like Raúl Sohr, have pointed out that the closure of the Castilla project should promote a discussion on the development of a new energy model in the country. They noted the desirability of exploiting the enormous potential for solar energy in Atacama, considered the area with the most sunlight on the planet, in addition to tapping into wind energy.
“Any mining project should incorporate at least 20 percent or 30 percent of unconventional, renewable energy,” Sohr told news outlet Piensa Chile. “Chile can choose a cleaner, more economical and safer [energy] matrix.”