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Chile renews contract with lithium company criticized for damaging wetland

  • A lithium company operating in the Atacama salt flats in northern Chile has been cited for environmental impacts related to over-extraction of the mineral-rich brine.
  • The region contains more than half the world’s lithium reserves, a crucial component in energy storage technologies, with widespread applications in the automotive and electronics industries.
  • Situated in the heart of the driest desert in the world, the salt flats support a unique wetland environment home to multiple flamingo species.

In the heart of the driest desert in the world, a company currently sanctioned for half a dozen environmental infractions continues to mine reserves of one of the most coveted commodities on Earth.

The Atacama salt flats in northern Chile hold more than half the world’s known reserves of lithium, a crucial element in the energy-storage technology driving the boom in electric cars and digital devices. And hoovering it up since 1993 is Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM), a company that in January 2018 secured an extension with a government agency to continue mining through 2032. The renewed contract allows SQM to increase its lithium production fivefold.

Although this increase in production would be due to improved processes rather than greater extraction of the resource, the ongoing activities of SQM in the Atacama salt flats have concerned scientific and civil communities, which have been observing a long-term deterioration of ecosystems in the basin.

The still waters of the Atacama salt flats reflect nearby mountains. Photo by Michelle Carrere

A wetland in the desert

Water is precious in the arid Atacama, and the salt flats provide a rare wetland habitat crucial for a number of flamingo species. From the summits of nearby mountain ranges, water flows in underground aquifers and through the Vilama and San Pedro rivers to drain into the salt flats. Here, the fresh water pools into the great salt flats, stopped by the dense saltwater brine — the source of the lithium reserves.

Ingrid Garcés, a researcher from Chile’s University of Antofagasta, with a Ph.D. in geological science, says the two waters don’t mix easily. At first glance, they appear to separate like water and oil due to their different densities. In the flats, the waters remain still, with the freshwater retained in the lakes of varying size that crown the edges of the salt flats. The vegetation on the east border is “the most sensitive area of the salt flats, since the groundwater or surface water that flows into the salt flats comes from there,” Garcés says.

Lake systems such as the Soncor, Aguas de Quelana and Peine are crucial breeding and nesting sites for the area’s flamingoes, which include  species such as the Andean (Phoenicoparrus andinus), Chilean (Phoenicopterus chilensis) and James’s flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus jamesi). The Andean is the rarest of flamingo species, and is categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The other two species are considered near-threatened.  In early 1996, these wetlands were declared a Ramsar site, under an intergovernmental treaty on the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

A flamingo flies above the Atacama salt flats. Photo by Michelle Carrere.

Setting the rules on lithium production

SQM extracts lithium-rich brine from the core of the salt flats at a depth of roughly 30 meters (about 100 feet). The brine is then deposited in evaporation pits for between 11 and 14 months, after which salts with 6 percent lithium remain. Garcés says that during the extraction process, “for each ton of the mineral, about 2 million liters [528,000 gallons] of water are eliminated, through evaporation.” The salt is then shipped in trucks to processing plants in the city of Antofagasta to extract the lithium as well as other compounds, such as potassium chloride, potassium sulfate and boric acid.

During the process, discarded salts are piled, some of the brine is re-injected directly into the salt flats, and some is drained into the aquifer, recirculating back into the system. “However, the percentage of water that is recovered is less than 10 percent, since the vast majority evaporates,” Garcés says.

For years, SQM said in its reports that the lakes and salt flats were two impermeable and unconnected water systems. Without an independent report, this was taken as the truth — until recently, when the company acknowledged that there was some interaction between the systems. Through tunnels and underground caverns, freshwater interacts with the salt flats, forming the same hydrological system, so that “the extraction of brine, or saltwater, from the salt flats can affect the lakes,” Garcés says.

In 2006, Chile’s environmental authority granted a permit for the development of a project that sought to increase the extraction of brine, the extraction of freshwater on the edges of the salt flats, the area of solar evaporation, and the collection of salts discarded in the salt flats’ core. The production of potassium chloride also requires freshwater, which is why SQM has the right to use this resource from five wells on the edges of the salt flats.

The project developers said it would be done with zero environmental impact, and a permit, Resolución de Calificación Ambiental (RCA), was granted under that condition. “The increase in the rate of pumping fresh brine will follow an operational rule, which ensures that the level of the aquifer at the edges of the salt flats, where the sensitive environmental systems are located, will oscillate within its historical behavior,” the RCA says. To avoid any environmental impact, a monitoring plan was considered to determine the levels of water recharge and discharge, and any potential change in the aquifer’s natural behavior.

In addition, a contingency plan was devised for when the lakes’ water level reached a certain threshold. Monitoring wells and observation rules were established in the RCA for the Aguas de Quelana, Soncor, Peine and east border vegetation systems. When the threshold of these wells reached their historical minimum levels, a warning would be activated to increase the monitoring frequency to anticipate impacts, and in a second stage, reduce the pumping flow of brine and/or freshwater, as appropriate. In the event of any impact, “the operational execution of the project would have to be suspended immediately,” the RCA says.

Lack of transparency over environmental impact

In November 2016, Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment, the government agency responsible for overseeing environmental permits, initiated a sanctioning process against SQM for having, among other things, unilaterally modified the activation levels of its contingency plan. That meant that “the plan was not activated when it should have been,” says Alonso Barros, a lawyer for the Atacama Desert Foundation and legal representative of the Camar indigenous community.

According to charges drafted in 2014 by the superintendency, the company withdrew two monitoring wells, thereby deactivating warning indicators. The superintendency considered the charges to be “very serious.”

A criminal complaint, currently pending, filed by the Atacameño indigenous community of Camar against SQM, says that “this illegal action was carried out in a manifestly fraudulent manner, since such alterations made by the owners of SQM were made in a completely unilateral and surreptitious manner, without being authorized to do so by the environmental authority.”

Collecting water samples in the Atacama salt flats. Photo by the Council of Atacameño Communities.

SQM was also found to have committed five other environmental infractions, among them excessive brine extractions that were authorized between August 2013 and August 2015. In March 2015, the Superintendency of the Environment, together with the National Forest Corporation and the Agricultural and Livestock Service, conducted an inspection that found “that the number of areas or plots without vegetation in the east border vegetation system has been increasing. Furthermore, the richness of the species has decreased compared with the previous year, though the company has not reported this situation to the environmental authority.” In fact, the charges detail that 13 carob trees, a hardy species that’s one of the few plants able to survive the area’s harsh conditions, dried up during the project, none of which the company reported to the environmental authority, which it was legally required to do.

Significant effects on soil pH and salinity were also confirmed, with warnings that “the soil has changed from being moderately saline to strongly saline, with a higher alkaline pH level.” In addition, the inspection found that the company provided incomplete information regarding the extraction of freshwater, levels of wells and plant formations, “which does not allow for traceable information from which variables can be verified.”

In June 2013, four months before the first inspections were carried out that would reveal these infractions, SQM obtained an environmental permit to increase its production of potassium chloride in the Atacama salt flats by 700,000 tons.

Mongabay Latam reviewed the documents related to the permit. In one of them, a monitoring report by SQM from April 2012, the company warned of an “increase in carob trees with low green coverage and a dry state of health.”

Yet despite this, the following June the Regional Environmental Evaluation Commission approved the company’s request to increase its production. The person who chaired the commission and signed the permit was the then-mayor of the Antofagasta region, Pablo Tolosa. Tolosa served as a lawyer for SQM between 1998 and 2010.

A dry section of the Atacama salt flats. Photo by Michelle Carrere.

SQM claims compliance with its permit

In response to the sanctioning process initiated against SQM, the company presented a compliance program, which has not yet been approved, and claimed to take responsibility for each of the infractions, committing to comply with regulations in the permit granted to it in 2006.

As part of the program, the company committed, among other things, to the “implementation of online monitoring systems that will help to strengthen the verification of compliance with brine and industrial water extractions.” In addition, SQM said it would adopt other measures, such as immediately halting the extraction of water from one of its wells.

But at the same time, the company said the negative effect of brine extractions beyond what its permit authorized “is marginal,” and that “it has a minimum level of influence … represents a contribution less than 2% of the observed decreases, that is, close to 1 mm, and is a value that would be even less since this additional extraction has not been carried out permanently.” Regarding the increase in soil salinity, the company similarly said that “the possibility of negative effects derived from the infringement is absolutely ruled out.”

Environmental biologist Carolina Díaz, general manager of the consulting firm Amakaik, which is developing an ecological model for the Atacama salt flats, says that “a compliance program, which denies the responsibility of generating impact as a result of infractions, cannot be a good program. This is because it does not know whether the proposed measures will be effective in mitigating these impacts, since they are not well identified and much less quantified.”

Díaz says the existing research on these ecosystems and the impacts caused by the industry was carried out by SQM and thus belongs to the company. In effect, “the burden of proof for no impact is always on the client, it is not in the government,” she says. Under the current environmental evaluation system, it’s the owner of the project who periodically obtains the environmental data, analyzes them and delivers the information to the authority. The authority supervises, “but there is no permanent empirical verification of the data obtained from the operation of these plans and, in most cases, the raw data obtained are not available for independent analysis,” Díaz says.

She adds that while “it is very likely that the company is causing harm, the studies they conduct and their opinion is one thing. Another is the proof.”

This story was originally published on Mongabay Latam