Chile’s Supreme Court rules against thermoelectric complex after pollution complaints

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SANTIAGO, Chile – Chile’s Supreme Court sided with local fishermen who contend a coal-fired power complex harms ocean life and pollutes their community, but the judges stopped short of ordering a suspension and left it to environmental authorities to decide if operations can continue.

The ruling on the Bocamina complex released Friday was another in a series of blows to big power projects in energy-strapped Chile, where concerns over environmental issues have been rising.

In December, an appeals court halted the 350-megawatt Bocamina II part of the complex owned by Endesa Chile in the southern Bio Bio region, citing harm to fishermen’s livelihood.

The 128-megawatt Bocamina I plant was allowed to keep running. But the Supreme Court said the whole complex should shut down unless officials determine the water-cooling system doesn’t threaten or hurt marine life.

The company can only operate the Bocamina I and II thermoelectric plants if they don’t put harm marine life or put it at risk, the high court said in a ruling made Thursday.

The court ordered Chile’s environmental authorities to take all measures required, including “a halt of operations” if needed, until the problem is fixed.

Environmental groups and fishermen say the complex’s use of huge amounts of seawater to cool its equipment damages the area.

“It has been sucking the water with tubes, destroying and spitting back dead fish and crustaceans into the water through its cooling system,” said Lorenzo Soto, a lawyer representing fishermen. He called the court’s finding “a great victory for the local fishing community.”

Endesa Chile issued a statement that it has implemented a plan to reduce the risk of sea life being sucked into the cooling system and has given it to authorities.

The Supreme Court’s decision is the latest setback for megaprojects due to environmental concerns.

A $1.4 billion coal-fired plant also owned by Endesa was suspended last year.

And a proposed project to power central Chile by damming Patagonian rivers in the south remains on hold. The 2,750-megawatt HidroAysen hydropower project co-owned by Endesa will be reviewed by a ministerial commission, but newly elected President Michelle Bachelet has already said the project is not viable.

Polls say most Chileans oppose the HidroAysen plan to dam two of the world’s wildest rivers and build more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) of power lines linking them to the grid that powers the nation’s capital. Some protests against HidroAysen have turned violent.

Environmentalists fighting coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric dams say Chile should instead develop renewable energy sources.

But some experts say alternative energy would not meet demand over the coming years. Studies indicate Chile needs to triple its energy capacity in less than 15 years, and it has no domestic oil or natural gas.

Chile imports 97 per cent of its fossil fuels and depends largely on hydropower for electricity, creating a crisis when droughts drain reservoirs or far away disputes affect fuel imports.

Endesa is a Spanish subsidiary of the Italian energy company Enel SpA. It operates 16 hydroelectric and 11 thermoelectric plants in Chile, according to the company’s website.

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Associated Press writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this report.

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