How to solve Codelco's arsenic problem

Friday, May 12, 2017

Chilean firm Ecometales, a subsidiary of state copper giant Codelco, plans to build a plant to treat complex copper concentrates rich in arsenic. These types of concentrates are likely to increase in the future as mines get deeper and the ore gets "dirtier" with more arsenic, which could create problems for Codelco's future projects at its northern division, namely the Chuquicamata underground mine and the expansion of Radomiro Tomic.

Ecometales already has a US$70mn arsenic abatement pilot plant serving Codelco's northern operations, but is now seeking to build a bigger plant to process 220,000t/y of concentrates and requiring some US$370mn.

BNamericas spoke with the general manager of Ecometales, Iván Valenzuela, to learn more about how the environmental permitting process is moving forward, and what to expect in the coming months.

BNamericas: The company submitted the permit request in October last year. How has it progressed?

Valenzuela: It's moving ahead. We recently received comments [from the environmental authorities] and we have to respond with an addendum. We expect to have the environmental permit approved in the next six months, that's our estimate. We believe that, because of the nature of the project, we shouldn't have a problem, though you never know with environmental permits.

But we expect to have the permits during the course of the year.

BNamericas: On the issue of financing the plant, what alternatives are you considering?

Valenzuela: This is a company that's a 100% subsidiary of Codelco, and this issue [of financing] is under consideration. It's a project to address the necessities of Codelco, and if it's needed and is a good project, the funds will be there if Codelco decides to fund it.

So we expect that, if we have secured the environmental permits during this year, and we finish all necessary reviews for the project, towards the end of the year we should know if Codelco is willing, if it believes it's advantageous, to move to the next stage which is detailed engineering and construction of the plant.

BNamericas: The mining industry is focusing heavily on innovation. How is that for you as a Codelco subsidiary?

Valenzuela: We've been very privileged in that sense. By funding the US$70mn pilot plant, for a product that was not obligatory but was a necessity, Codelco took risks, and I believe that those risks have been more than compensated for, and in that sense we think we've been favored with the forward-looking and proactive attitude of our owner.

And I think that as long as we can demonstrate in the upcoming [Codelco] projects how important and convenient it is to build our plant, in the short and long term and both economically and environmentally, then I'm sure we will have positive news.

We have a mix of good ideas, good execution, trust and I think that's what we need across the mining industry.

BNamericas: What are the chances that this technology can be used by other companies?

Valenzuela: We're completely open to it. I mean, it's not only possible but we see it as a necessity, as something good. So in that sense, the willingness of Codelco and from us at Ecometales is to have more clients, to sell our solution inside and outside Chile.

About Iván Valenzuela

Iván Valenzuela is a commercial engineer from Universidad de Chile with a master's degree in economic development from Universidad Católica del Perú. He has served as deputy mining minister (1990-94), VP of Codelco (1994-2000) and general manager of Alliance Copper (2001-06).