- The marine conservation NGO Oceana has requested that the environmental permit for the Cruz Grande port project in Chile be revoked for not complying with a deadline for starting work on-site.
- The project may also be damaging threatened plants at the project site, violating the terms of the permit.
- Scientists say that the Cruz Grande port project has an inadequate environmental baseline development analysis.
- Therefore, the port is endangering one of the most biodiverse marine protected areas in the country.
Chile’s largest steel producer is violating the terms of its environmental permit for construction of a port near several of the country’s critical marine reserves, according to the marine conservation NGO Oceana.
The Chilean environment authority granted Compañía de Acero del Pacífico (CAP) a permit on Jan. 30, 2015, for the construction and operation of the Cruz Grande port on northern Chile’s coast. The port would allow 75 ships a year to load 13.5 million metric tons of mined iron ore, just 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve and the Choros and Damas Island Marine Reserve.
The environmental permit was only valid until the beginning of 2020, and work was to have started on the port prior to its expiration. Representatives from Oceana traveled to the area in January 2020 to assess the current state of progress on the Cruz Grande project. The NGO found that the construction process as it is currently underway could be damaging threatened plant species, violating the terms of the environmental permit.
Based on the evidence gathered, Oceana filed a complaint with the Office of the Environment, the Chilean agency that grants and monitors environmental permits, and the NGO requested that the expired permit be cancelled.
Cruz Grande under surveillance
Setting permit expiration dates helps to ensure that construction happens in conditions that are as similar as possible to what existed during the environmental assessment, said Javiera Calisto, a lawyer with Oceana. Carrying out the project within that time frame provides the best chance for avoiding damage to the surrounding area, Calisto added.
Biologist Juan Capella has spent more than 30 years studying humpback whales in the region, and he said the environmental landscape can change significantly in five years’ time.
“Currently, the environmental features and all the systems associated with them are changing with great frequency,” Capella said. “The natural cycles have accelerated and been modified.
“In fact, in the area of the Humboldt Penguin Reserve, there have been changes that have taken place over a period of two years,” he added. “New fauna has appeared that did not exist before, [and] fauna that did exist has disappeared or declined a lot, such as cetacean populations.”
That is why “it is important that there isn’t a long lead time between the approval of a project and the start of the work on-site,” Capella said.
Calisto said Oceana sent a lawyer to the area days before the environmental permit’s expiration to verify whether CAP had done any work demonstrating that the project had started. The lawyer found that a small backhoe-type machine and a few flags that had been set up on the edges of the project area, along with a square on the ground delineating where the port was to be located.
“The owner, to prevent the revocation of [the environmental permit] and prove that it had started some work on-site moved some earth in the place where the project itself is located,” Calisto said.
Although the company’s environmental permit does not specify the minimum requirements that would signal the start of construction, simply moving earth — as the Oceana lawyer observed at the Cruz Grande project site — should not be considered sufficient, she said.
The permit also requires that the company must move any threatened plant species found at the project site to a nature sanctuary before moving earth or laying any kind of groundwork, Calisto said. The company had agreed to create such a sanctuary, she said, but so far, it hasn’t done so.
“As a result, the company is damaging unique and threatened plants at the construction site,” Calisto said, including a shrub called the lucumillo (Myrcianthes coquimbensis) endemic to the Coquimbo region, and the austral papaya (Vasconcella chilensis). The lucumillo is classified as endangered, according to Chile’s Red Book of Native Flora, and the austral papaya is considered vulnerable. Three other affected plants, Alstroemeria magnifica var. tofoensis, Copiapoa coquimbana and Trichocereus coquimbanus, are classified as near threatened.
Oceana reported these apparent permit violations to the environment authority and asked for the company’s permit to be revoked.
“To begin with, the work [on the project] does not constitute the minimum required to say that the construction of the project has begun,” Calisto said. Even if the work were enough, she added, the company still violated the terms of the environmental permit.
Mongabay Latam contacted CAP, but the company did not respond prior to publication.
The environment authority said that its office had submitted “a request for information with the company in order to obtain the information that will enable them to establish whether there is any basis for revocation,” and the company still has time to comply with this request. The environment office also confirmed that it plans to inspect the project site soon.
Scientific aspects of the project
The Humboldt Archipelago, which runs from Punta Poroto in the south to Punta Pájaros in the north in the Coquimbo region where the project is located, is an important corridor for whales. It is also home to 122 species of birds, including the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), 68 species of fish,180 species of macroalgae and invertebrates, and Chile’s only resident colony of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). In total, the site is home to 560 marine species.
According to CAP, the zone of influence of the project — that is, the area that may be impacted by the construction — is confined only to the space in which ships maneuver within and on their approach to the proposed port, which sits next to the town of Chungungo.
But this baseline development analysis produced by the company does not take into account the route that ships must take to enter the bay and how that would affect the unique biodiversity of this area, said Yerko Vilina, a scientist and seabird expert at Chile’s University Santo Tomás.
“Clashes between ships and whales are a real risk,” Capella said, because cetaceans swim and feed in the area. However, this impact was “never considered within the project,” he said.
Throughout the assessment process, several environmental organizations asked CAP to expand its baseline analysis and “not to limit itself to the sector where they ‘park’ the ships,” Calisto said, especially because of the proximity to the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve and the Choros and Damas Island Marine Reserve.
Following these requests, CAP agreed to have ships enter the bay through a specific corridor. However, this was a voluntary commitment by the company, and it refused to consider the corridor part of its zone of influence. Therefore, although a specific corridor has been designated, it is not part of a baseline development analysis, Calisto said. And because there have been no studies on the consequences of ships moving through this space, she added, “The corridor gives no certainty that species will not be affected.”
The project also does not include the protected areas within its zone of influence, even though scientific evidence demonstrates that birds living in the reserves feed at the project site.
Marine biologist Carlos Gaymer, the regional coordinator of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas-Marine for the southeast Pacific, said that all of the animals that live in the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve must travel elsewhere to feed. Their main feeding sites are found in the coastal areas of Totoralillo Norte, Chungungo and the stretch of mainland Chile that runs from Caleta de Hornos to Punta de Choros.
Those projected impacts on the area’s wildlife are why a group of scientists has spent years calling for the conservation of the Humboldt Archipelago’s coastal areas.
“It makes no sense to protect the nesting areas if you don’t protect their feeding areas,” Gaymer said.
The Humboldt Penguin Conservation Plan notes that “degradation of feeding sites is the priority threat in terms of scope, severity and irreversibility.”
The project’s environmental permit was issued in spite of these concerns voiced by the scientific community, civil society organizations and some government agencies that the zone of influence considered by the project was “inadequate.” The National Forest Corporation, one of the government agencies that opposes the project, said that not having adequate information means that it won’t be possible to mitigate or to compensate for the impacts of the project.
According to Calisto, the environmental assessment of the Cruz Grande project did include a pamphlet about whales — in Panama.
“The environmental assessment of the Cruz Grande project is so crude,” she said. In addition, the project “was notable for its failure to include public participation,” she said, which leads to less-demanding assessments, weak environmental impact studies and feeble mitigation and compensation measures.
As a result of these issues, the Cruz Grande port faced claims of noncompliance in the environmental courts early on, but it did finally obtain its relevant environmental qualification resolution. Now, five years later, environmental advocates and scientists hope that the revocation of the environmental permit for the project may be a new opportunity to protect one of Chile’s — and South America’s — most important marine conservation areas.
Banner image of the largest colony of Humboldt penguins in the world, found in Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, courtesy of Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen.