May 6, 2016 / 9:07 PM / 2 years ago

Chile environmental watchdog probes Codelco smelter

SANTIAGO, May 6 (Reuters) - Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, is being probed by Chile’s environmental regulator for violations at a refinery and smelter, the agency said on Friday.

The regulator, known by its Spanish acronym SMA, said it would investigate the state-owned miner’s Ventanas facility in the coastal town of Puchuncavi for 13 environmental infractions.

These include failing to convert to natural gas for certain processes and equipment, lacking a system to capture acidic mist, and not implementing a process to safeguard native wildlife, the SMA said in a statement.

Communities near Ventanas have blamed emissions and heavy-metal particles from the plant for health problems.

Codelco said in a statement the infractions it has been accused of do not pose health risks to people. It will respond to the charges within 72 hours, the company added.

“We will analyze SMA’s report and will quickly address the observations with technical accuracy and responsibility,” Ventanas general manager Jose Sanhueza said.

The Ventanas plant dates to 1964 and by law the SMA can only supervise parts that were modified after 1997. This means SMA does not have the power to shut down the whole plant, although it can temporarily revoke environmental permits or impose fines.

“We carried out programmed inspections and we also included complaints, as neighbors in Puchuncavi have sent our institution diverse complaints,” SMA chief Cristian Franz said in the statement.

Franz has said that mining companies and others investing in Chile can expect increased scrutiny and sanctions if they break environmental rules, as the SMA is allocated more resources and more inspectors.

Codelco said on Friday it has invested $160 million in nearly 15 projects at Ventanas since 2012, to reduce emissions and improve waste management.

Codelco told Reuters last month that it was considering building a new copper smelter to boost output by more than 10 percent. It said it was willing for the first time to take on foreign partners for the expansion, and had earmarked almost $2 billion to renovate other ageing smelters over the next two years. (Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Richard Chang)

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