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Chile’s Hidroaysen may flood Patagonia park

Santiago Times
September 17, 2008

In addition to displacing 14 families and flooding major sections of Region XI’s Baker and Pascua river valleys, the controversial HidroAysén dam project – by the company’s own admission – looks to encroach on a nearby national park. HidroAysén is a joint entity created in 2006 by Spanish- Italian electricity giant Endesa and Chilean utility Colbún. HidroAysén project would flood portions of the Baker river valley.

According to the project’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS), which HidroAysén submitted to Chilean authorities last month (PT, Aug. 14), the estimated US$3 billion project would flood some 48 hectares within Patagonia’s Laguna San Rafael National Park. Overall, Endesa and Colbún plan to flood approximately 5,900 hectares.

The planned encroachment has added fuel to the fire of what was already a hugely contentious issue, especially because in 1967 Chile ratified the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere. Originally drafted in 1940 in Washington D.C., the convention prohibits all types of commercial exploitation of resources located within protected areas.

Laguna San Rafael National Park, furthermore, is not the only protected area that could be affected by the huge hydroelectric venture. HidroAysén estimates that together, the five Region XI dams will add some 2,750 MW of electricity to the country’s overall installed capacity, which currently stands at about 13,000 MW. The far southern dams will contribute nothing, however, unless they can be connected to Chile’s central grid. A Canadian-owned company called Transelec plans to do just that by building what could potentially be the world’s longest transmission line. That power line, say observers, will almost certainly run through at least some national parks and/or protected wilderness areas: most likely Region X’s Vicente Pérez Rosales, Corcovado and Hornopién National Parks.

HidroAysén is by no means the only foreign company looking to operate within Chile’s national parks. Earlier this year an Italian energy firm called Idroenergía sought and was actually granted permission to develop a run-of-the river hydroelectric project within Region X’s Puyehue National Park, Chile’s most visited (PT, July 24). The Regional Environmental Commission’s decision to approve Idroenergía’s13-MW, US$20 million Palmar-Correntoso project drew sharp criticism from environmental groups and some members of Congress.

“This project is illegal, worrisome and sets a terrible example. I’m doing everything I can to make sure either the Comptroller’s Office or CONAMA (National Environmental Commission) nullify the ruling. If not, and especially given Chile’s energy crisis, companies will begin presenting plans in many national parks and that’s just not right,” Dep. Patricio Vallespín, a leading critic of the project, told the Patagonia Times.

Thanks to lobbying by Vallespín and others, authorities are currently reexamining the decision to approve the Idroenergía project. A Congressional committee met over the issue last week (PT, Sept. 4). The meeting was attended by Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte, who came out against the project. The issue, meanwhile, is being examined by a Puerto Montt appeals court, which ordered Idroenergía to suspend construction pending a final ruling. Observers say the court’s verdict will set an important precedent one way or the other.

CONAMA’s decision on the HidroAysén project isn’t expected for at least six months. Opponents, whose criticisms of the dams extend far beyond their impact on Laguna San Rafael National Park, have until Nov. 24 to submit their observations.

Critics such as the Patagonia Defense Council, an umbrella group representing more than 40 national and international organizations, characterize the project as an anachronistic behemoth that will line the pockets of private power and mining companies at significant social and environmental costs. They accuse the company as being out of step with 21stcentury energy-production trends that lean toward renewable energy technologies and improvements in energy efficiency.

By Benjamin Witte (benwite@santiagotimes.cl)

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