Andacollo, a town of 12,000 on the fringes of Chile´s Atacama Desert has a long pre-Hispanic history, and is today famed for its massive festival honoring the Virgin of the Rosary. But a year ago, the government declared it a “Saturated Zone” because of high air pollution, a term it uses for areas with high levels of air pollution.
Since 1990, two mines have been operating, and the daily explosions at the two open pits spew particles into the air, making it unbreathable.
The National Environment Commission, known as CONAMA, in April 2009 found the number of particles of 10 microns or more per m3, or MP 10, exceeded the limit for long term health. Industrialized countries that use that index use particles of 2.5 microns or more.
Residents are left to breathe the contaminated air from the mines, run by Canada´s Minera Teck and Minera Dayton, which drill for copper and gold, respectively. Residents complain of bad odors coming from the mine as well.
The constant explosions rattle nearby homes and create noise pollution in the town.
Luis Guerrero, president of the Environmental Control and Communal Development Group, known by its Spanish initials, CMA, said the community members are suffering from respiratory infections at almost double the national rate.
Also average annual death rate for respiratory infections in the Coquimbo region, where Andacollo is located, was 48.5 per each 100,000 inhabitants between 1997 and 2005, while in Andacollo itself, it was 95.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the regional health secretariat.
“Are we condemned to living in a foul-smelling and dusty place?” asked Gabriel Pavicic, an architect who heads the public works department in Andacollo´s municipal office. “The Andacollo residents want to stop being a [mining] camp; they want to be a city. The idea is not that the mine leaves, but that they stay and give work but while following the norms.”
Miners see profits climb
Chile is the world´s largest producer and exporter of copper. In recent years, China´s copper demand has maintained strong prices for the metal – despite drops in the wake of the global financial crisis – spelling strong profits for the miners.
Between 2006 and 2009, Teck´s mine in Andacollo exported copper worth close to US$476 million.
Eyeing strong global demand, Teck has expanded its mine here, called Carmen de Andacollo. In just one year it has expanded its drilling, unearthing 12,000 metric tons of copper ore a day in 2009 to 56,000 metric tons now.
“Sadly, here in Andacollo there is no sustainable development,” said Yonathan López, a mining worker and director of the local environmental group CMA. “The mining companies aren´t conscious of the damage that they are causing for future generations.”
López explained that many residents here favor the mine because it is the main source of employment.
“Many don´t understand what “saturated zone” means,” he said. “As a group, we want the mining companies to follow the norms so we can live in an environment without contamination.”
Pavicic, the architect, argued that the mines are swallowing the city.
“We are absolutely surrounded,” he said. “It´s very sad to see a town with such great history … continue being a mining camp.”
Companies pass off responsibility
The mining companies say that they are respecting current laws, and argue that they are supporting the regional and national economies.
“What most interests us is maintaining our source of employment,” said César Chaibun, head of human resources at Minera Dayton.
He recognized that there is contamination in the town but that the mine is not the only one responsible.
“Sadly, one can´t define which one causes the most,” he said.
Wood-burning bakeries, road paving and sewage also contribute to the odors.
“As long as we cannot prove who is [responsible], it is difficult for someone to take responsibility,” Chaibun said.
According to the Mining Council, a group of public and private mining companies, the industry comprised close to 17 percent of Chile´s gross domestic product last year. Between 2005 and 2009, an income tax on mining companies´ income brought in US$24.8 billion for the country.