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Chile Patagonia dam debate escalates

Santiago Times
October 19, 2008

Sarah Larraín calls HidroAysén’s EIS “a complete fraud”

Recent reports by the General Water Directorate (DGA) and other government agencies criticizing the HidroAysén dam project have sparked a renewed war of words between backers and opponents of the controversial hydroelectric venture. Critics late last week called the project a fraud, while proponents expressed concern that authorities were forming judgments prematurely.

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 Patagonia also known as Aysén.

In August, HidroAysén submitted the US$3.2 billion project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for review and, hopefully, 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, National Forestry Service (CONAF), National Tourism Service (SERNATUR) and other government agencies. So far, 31 agencies have offered their assessments of HidroAysén’s EIS, a 10,000-page behemoth that reportedly cost the company several million dollars to prepare. To the company’s chagrin, none of the government agency reports is very complimentary (PT, Oct. 12).

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 DGA was equally critical, insisting the EIS lacks “relevant and essential information.” The water authority also questioned why the document makes no mention of Cachet 2, a glacial lake that this year – with a period of six months – produced two Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). In both cases, the lake emptied in a matter of hours, sending a dangerous surge of water into the nearby Baker River, where HidroAysén plans to build two of its hydroelectric power stations (PT, April 10, Oct. 13).

The critical agency reports prompted some harsh words from Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte, who told reporters that HidroAysén’s EIS “isn’t up to snuff.” “One need only read the agency 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.

HidroAysén responded by accusing the government agencies of making serious “mistakes” in their respective analyses. Technical Manager Bernardo Canales defended HidroAysén’s plan to flood a small portion of Laguna San Rafael National Park, saying there are laws in place allowing for such intervention. The area in question, furthermore, may not even be in the national park, said Canales, who pointed out a discrepancy between CONAF maps, which claim it to be public land, and property registry maps, which show the terrain to be privately owned.

The company official also addressed the GLOF issue, saying HidroAysén’s “Baker 2” dam will easily be able to withstand another flood from Cachet 2. “By looking at hydrological statistics available for the Baker River, one can see that these phenomena take place from time to time. For that reason, the engineering designs presented in the EIS took (GLOFs) into account from the very beginning,” said Canales.

But amateur GLOF expert Jonathan Leidich, who operates a travel company near the Baker River, has a very different impression. Leidich said he spoke with HidroAysén employees last April, shortly after Cachet 2’s first GLOF. “They had no idea what happened,” he told The Patagonia Times, a sister publication of The Santiago Times. Leidich says it was not until he led the group to the suddenly empty glacial lake that they finally understood what had occurred. “They have no clue about it,” he said.

The U.S.-born tourism operator agrees that the Baker 2 dam would probably be able to withstand a future GLOF. But the huge reservoir HidroAysén plans to create behind that dam will only increase the possibility of devastating flooding, said Leidich. “The dam will withstand, but when the reservoir’s water rise, the valley won’t,” he said. “The GLOFs and the dams will kill people.”

On the other hand, were the dam to break because of the region’s commonplace seismic activity, it would take only 43 minutes for the water to travel the 63 kilometers from Baker 2 to the town of Tortel, located at the mouth of the Baker, according to a recent study by Santiago’s Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana (UTEM). A breach in the dam – caused either by an earthquake or large GLOF – would likely release a 10-meter-high torrent of water and debris that would raze everything in its path, the study concluded.

Members of the Patagonia Defense Council (CDP) presented the UTEM study along with other arguments against the project during a press conference Friday in Santiago. The CDP, an umbrella group representing more than 40 Chilean and international organizations opposing the HidroAysén project, applauded the various agency reports and urged COREMA to kill the venture once and for all.

“The fact of the matter is that when a third of the public agencies that were consulted agree that the EIS lacks the necessary information to be approved, and when one of those agencies says the project is downright illegal, then it seems to us that the authorities have no other choice but to reject the project,” said CDP attorney Felipe Meneses.

Top environmentalist Sarah Larraín was even more scathing in her criticism of the project, describing the HidroAysén EIS as a “complete fraud.”

“The company has been saying for months that it hired the top specialists and that it had everything resolved. Yet in the end, it presented a study that lacks the basic vital information that needs to be properly evaluated,” she said.

“This is a sham,” Larraín added. “First off, they’re trying to pass off five different power plants as one single project. On top of that, it has enjoyed the backing of a strong political lobby, as well as media pressure.”

On Thursday, Chile’s top daily newspaper, El Mercurio, ran an editorial calling Environment Minister Uriarte’s recent comments “surprising” and urging COREMA to go ahead and approve the HidroAysén project.

By Benjamin Witte ( The Santiago Times – English Language Newspaper in Santiago, Chile – News in Chile and Latin America

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