Santiago: Anglo American Plc will scrap its next big copper project if studies indicate the plan could harm nearby glaciers or there’s major opposition from local communities in Chile, a top executive says.

The London-based company will file for environmental approval of the $3 billion (Dh11 billion) project to increase production at its Los Bronces mine during the third quarter, Henni Faul, who heads the miner’s copper business, said in an interview. The project is sensitive because of its proximity to Andean glaciers and the Chilean capital.

“All of our data proves we can mine that resource without doing any damage to the glaciers and without affecting the groundwater,” he said at the company’s offices in Santiago ahead of the Cesco Week mining conference. “We will not mine it if there are any other indications; we will not take the project forward.”

The Los Bronces project is part of Anglo American’s plan to expand its portfolio of copper assets organically, Faul said. Last year, the company started construction of the $5 billion Quellaveco mine in Peru, one of the few large copper mines being built at the moment.

Production at Los Bronces — the largest copper mine operated by the globe-straddling company — will decline in five years as ore grades decrease. The output expansion at the site, which has been mined for over 150 years, could take annual production from 369,500 tons last year to about 400,000. The company plans to use new technology to increase efficiency and to dig underground tunnels to avoid impact on the nearby glaciers.

“We’ve been working on this for six years and we trust we have the best scientific input,” Faul said of the Los Bronces plans.

About 80 per cent of South America’s glaciers are in Chile, and they cover about 3 per cent of the country’s land area. Rising temperatures combined with mining activity have sped up the melting of Andean glaciers, Francisco Ferrando, a geography professor at University of Chile in Santiago, said in June.

The Juncal Norte and Olivares Alfa glaciers, about 4,000 metres (13,100 feet) above sea level and close to Los Bronces and Codelco’s Andina mine, are melting at a faster pace than others further away, he said.

Time frame

Faul expects it will take about three years to obtain the necessary permits for the project, including the environmental licence. Project development would take four years, and ramp up a further five years. A lot could happen during that time, especially as glacier protection and the impact of mining on the delicate Andean environment are being discussed in Chile’s Congress.

The two mines are just about 65km away from Santiago, home to over five million people, about a third of the Chilean population. Developments around Los Bronces and the glaciers nearby are closely watched by local communities and large environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which opposes industrial and mining activities on or under glaciers.

Last year, Codelco announced a re-design of a planned expansion at Andina that would have involved mining on six rock glaciers. The new plan will move mining activities away from glaciers following direct orders from Codelco Chief executive officer Nelson Pizarro not to work near the glaciers, the mine’s sustainability manager Jorge Sanhueza said at the time.

Anglo wants to start discussions about its Los Bronces plans with local communities during the second quarter, Faul said. But the project won’t happen if there’s significant opposition.

“If the public protests against it, we can’t take that forward,” Faul said. “We can’t force anyone’s arm.”