SANTIAGO, Chile, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Executives of the influential salmon industry are threatening to cease operations if the Chilean government gives it the go-ahead for the Canadian Noranda's $2.7 billion aluminum project in southern Chile.
Ever since Noranda announced its intention to build its Alumysa aluminum processing plant in the southern Chilean region of Aysen, both the $1 billion salmon export industry as well as a number of environmentalist non-governmental organizations voiced their stringent opposition.
The industry depends on Aysen's pristine waters for its sustenance, and accordingly considers it pivotal for its future expansion plans, added to the fact that it has exhausted its growth in adjoining regions.
Robert Biehl, Noranda general manager, stated Monday that the salmon industry could not "condition development" in the region. Noranda executives have repeatedly said that Alumysa, which is to be erected near Puerto Chacabuco, Aysen's main port, will uphold every environmental disposition and work with clean technologies.
"Already in 1997, the courts declared that Alumysa could be developed in the Chacabuco port in accordance to Chilean laws," Biehl added.
The $2.75 billion Alumysa project is the largest foreign investment initiative being developed in Chile. It includes the construction of an aluminum processing plant, three hydroelectric plants, a new port in Chacabuco Bay, an industrial landfill, the construction of a 60-mile road and 58 miles of electricity lines. The complex is expected to produce an average of 440,000 tons of aluminum per year. The initiative will be carried out over five years, generating nearly 5,000 jobs for the region.
The Alumysa polemic reached a crescendo Friday, as Victor Hugo Pucchi --- president of SalmonChile, which groups the leading industry companies -- stated that should the Noranda project begin construction, he had "no doubt that 100 percent of the companies will leave the area."
The salmon industry's objections have a special weight considering that it is one of the few export sectors in the country that continues to reap solid profits regardless of the Chilean economic slowdown. Salmon exports and sales generate an annual average of $1 billion in revenues.
SalmonChile executives have accordingly spared no effort in their campaign against Alumysa and besides commissioning several environmental reports on its alleged adverse effects, went as far as inviting Fishing Undersecretary Felipe Sandoval to visit and inspect in August several aluminum plants in Norway and Iceland.
In accordance to Chilean law, Noranda issued last year a so-called environmental impact report on the effects that Alumysa would have on Aysen. The report was evaluated by the government Regional Environmental Commission, Corema, which rejected it on grounds that it lacked information.
Corema's decision was largely based on the observations made in an independent report commissioned by government authorities to academics from Chile's Catholic University. The investigation concluded that the project could have a serious impact on the region's ecosystem, stating that Alumysa alone could account for as much as 80 percent of the pollution levels in the region.
At the same time, environmentalist activists have denounced how contrary to Noranda's claims, Alumysa will not employ state-of-the-art technology.
Marcel Claude -- executive director of the environmentalist Terram Foundation -- said Alumysa would accordingly generate high emissions of carbon dioxide. According to Claude, with the proper equipment the emissions could nonetheless be reduced from the projected 959,000 tons per year to 600,000 tons.
Noranda has until Oct. 31 to deliver a report answering the critical observations made against Alumysa.
Considering Chile is enduring a time of contracted foreign investment and an unemployment rate that for the last few years has consistently bordered on 10 percent, Alumysa's eventual economic benefits have been heavily promoted by Noranda executives. Its importance has accordingly not gone unnoticed by Chile's financial authorities, such as Economy Minister Jorge Rodriguez, who has said in the past that he would support every investment project possible since that's the only way for the country to grow and generate new jobs.
Rodriguez has also dismissed environmental concerns about Alumysa's impact on the Aysen region, renowned for its natural landscapes and the pristine waters of its fiords, rivers and lagoons. Only last year, the minister caused a stir among environmentalist activists when, after meeting with salmon industry executives, he stated: "What's the use of having one of the most unpolluted areas in the world if no one lives in it?"
Still, those who will be most affected by the project -- the region's inhabitants, -- are allegedly not opposed to the Alumysa plant. Aysen Mayor Oscar Catalan has stated in the past that nearly 80 percent of the people in his community support the project, mainly because of the new jobs that will be created. In order to appease the salmon industry's rage, Catalan has nonetheless pointed out that Alumysa should not take priority over the salmon industry, which accounts for 30 percent of the region's jobs.
Representatives from the salmon industry have replied that their business will generate considerably more employment than Alumysa. According to industry growth projections for the next decade, the salmon business should create from 8,000 to 22,000 work posts in the region.
Besides sponsoring the Alumysa initiative Noranda also controls a series of copper assets in Chile. These include the Altonorte smelting plant in the northern region of Antofagasta, which has an annual treatment capacity of 160,000 tons of copper, as well as a 4 percent stake through its Falconbridge subsidiary in Collahuasi, the world's fourth largest copper mine, located in northern Chile.