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Hidroaysen’s impact study panned by govt agencies

Santiago Times
October 12, 2008

Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte: “EIS isn’t up to snuff”

Long the subject of fierce criticism by activists and environmental NGOs, the controversial HidroAysén dam project is now raising serious concerns among various public agencies, including the National Water Directorate (DGA) and National Forestry Service (CONAF).

HidroAysén is an energy company formed in 2006 by Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean utility. The two companies – Chile’s leading electricity providers – hope to build five massive hydroelectric dams in far southern Chile’s Region XI, an area of northern Patagonia also known as Aysén.

In August, HidroAysén submitted its US$3.2 billion project for approval by regional environmental authorities (PT, Aug. 14). As a first step in the review process, Aysén’s Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) solicited input from the DGA, CONAF, National Tourism Service (SERNATUR) and other government agencies. Those reports have now been filed and, at first glance, are highly critical of HidroAysén’s 10,000-page Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

According to CONAF, the EIS “doesn’t meet current environmental standards regarding national parks and forestry legislation.” The statement alludes specifically to HidroAysén’s planned encroachment into Patagonia’s Laguna San Rafael National Park, 48 hectares of which would be swallowed up in one of several large reservoirs the company plans to build (PT, Sept. 11). Overall, HidroAysén plans to flood approximately 5,900 hectares.

The behemoth EIS also received a poor review from Chile’s National Geologic and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN). The government agency is particularly concerned about a glacial lake known as Cachet 2, which “disappeared” twice in the past six months due to a relatively common glacial phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). A GLOF is a sudden increase in a lake’s volume due to one of various possible causes, including a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, an avalanche, or a portion of a glacier falling into a lake (PT, April 10).

In April, water from Cachet 2 drained into the nearby Baker River, where HidroAysén plans to build two of its large-scale hydroelectric power stations. The sudden surge of water caused the powerful river – Chile’s largest – to change course for several hours. During that time, the Baker’s average water level rose by four meters, experts reported.

HidroAysén’s EIS contains no information regarding Cachet 2, SERNAGEOMIN pointed out. The oversight is especially noteworthy considering that Cachet 2 drained again just last week. “The study doesn’t offer any information about the catastrophic April 2008 draining of the Cachet 2 glacial lake,” wrote SERNAGEOMIN. “We ask them to study the effects (that event) had on the Baker and consider the possibility that it could happen again.”

The DGA expressed a similar concern, questioning why mention of the GOLF phenomenon, something that was “amply studied and anticipated by glaciologists and engineers,” was absent from HidroAysén’s environmental study. The EIS lacks “relevant and essential information,” concluded the DGA, which also noted mapping errors within the document.

What effect the various reports will have on COREMA’s decision making process remains to be seen, although some observers are already anticipating that the environmental authority might – as it did last year with an EIS submitted by Swiss mining company Xstrata (for a pair of dams along Region XI’s Cuervo River) – declare the project inadmissible. Under such a scenario, HidroAysén would have to decide either to scrap the project or revamp and later resubmit the EIS. The reports appear to have made a strong impression on Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte, who told reporters late last week that the EIS “isn’t up to snuff.”

“This is a categorical and conclusive fact. One need only read the reports to see that they’re consistent in saying the information presented by the company doesn’t allow for an adequate evaluation of the project,” she said.

The various agency observations are being applauded by the project’s many critics, among them the Patagonia Defense Council (CDP). An umbrella group formed last October, the CDP represents some 40 Chilean and international organizations who insist the dam scheme would cause irreparable harm to the Baker and Pascua Rivers and open the door to future industrial development in Patagonia.

The EIS “offers a lot of straw but not much wheat,” CDP head Patricio Rodrigo told the Patagonia Times. “(HidroAysén) has submitted a report in which one can’t see the forest through the trees. There is a ton of duplicated information. The various government agencies say for that reason that the project is very hard to evaluate, because at no point does the EIS present the various impacts as a whole.”

“As time goes by, we feel more confident that this project won’t go through. Because there’s also another factor as well,” he added, referring to the project’s hefty price tag. “Given the global financial crisis, who’s going to shell out all that money? Especially for a project that comes with so many question marks.”

By Benjamin Witte (patagoniatimes@gmail.com) The Santiago Times – English Language Newspaper in Santiago, Chile – News in Chile and Latin America

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