Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, closed its Ventanas metal smelter in Chile after concerns over environmental damage reached a breaking point.
On Wednesday, the company ceased copper smelting production after after decades of polluting Quintero Bay with toxic gases, inhalation of which is associated with respiratory ailments.
The mining company made the decision to close down its operations in the town of Quintero last year prompted by the declaration of an environmental emergency by the authorities. The pollution caused by sulfur dioxide emissions had led to numerous individuals experiencing symptoms of poisoning. Quintero is situated approximately 108 kilometers northwest of the capital city.
“The transformation of the Ventanas division serves as clear evidence that this corporation is taking decisive steps towards more sustainable mining,” said Maximo Pacheco, the chairman of the board.
Codelco has announced its commitment to shifting its production towards more sustainable copper in response to the increasing environmental demands from both buyers and the Chilean government.
Authorities in Chile did not directly attribute incidents to Codelco’s smelter
In 2018, a significant incident involving a release of sulphur dioxide occurred near the Ventanas plant, leading Greenpeace to liken the area to “Chile’s Chernobyl.” The incident resulted in approximately 600 individuals receiving medical treatment for symptoms including vomiting blood, headaches, dizziness and paralysis of the extremities. Another event happened in June 2022 where another hundred people, mostly students, were affected by the same problem.
The authorities did not directly attribute the incident to Codelco’s smelter because over a dozen large businesses, including fossil fuel, cement, and electricity companies, operate in the area. Quintero and its surroundings have been referred to as a “sacrifice zone” by environmentalists due to the recurring pollution incidents that have resulted in public health emergencies.
Codelco suspended operations in the smelter last year to comply with the legal requirements for its closure. This process involved implementing operational adjustments as directed by the environmental regulator. Initially, union workers opposed the closure; however, they later reached an agreement with the company. More than half of the workforce opted for a voluntary retirement plan.
The area now hosts four coal-fired power stations as well as oil and copper refineries.
A few other copper companies operating in Chile include BHP (ASX: BHP), Antofagasta Minerals (LSE: ANTO) and Anglo American plc (LSE: AAL).