HidroAysén's latest delay highlights a clear bias in the environmental review process

Today HidroAysén, the company proposing a massive hydroelectric scheme in the heart of Chile’s Patagonia, delayed its environmental review process yet again by asking authorities for a four month extension beyond the June 30th deadline, when it was supposed to deliver its next environmental impact document.  This move clearly underscores the imbalance of the entire environmental review process, in which project proponents can delay the timetable without limit but the state agencies must work under strict deadlines.  It also reinforces the HidroAysén’s established pattern of delaying its review, before—so far—submitting insufficient and erroneous documents. 

Almost two years ago, in August 2008, HidroAysén first submitted the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for its mega-dam project:  five large dams built on two of the country’s wildest and most pristine rivers, the Pascua and the Baker.  The scheme would also necessitate the construction of a 1500-mile long high voltage transmission line to carry the dams’ potential output north, clear-cutting a 100-meter wide scar through national parks, protected reserves, and nine regions on its way to Santiago.  

After state agencies submitted over 2,500 criticisms on the EIA, the regional environmental authority (COREMA) granted the company nine months, until August 2009, to respond to these comments in an Addendum.  Just before that deadline, HidroAysén asked for an extension, delivering its First Addendum in October 2009.  Working under a strict ten-day limit, the same state agencies reviewed that document and filed more than 1100 new criticisms, identifying gross deficiencies and incorrect information (which I described here).  For example, several agencies noted the lack of consideration of the accelerated melting of the region’s glaciers, which are resulting in markedly more frequent glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) on the Baker River.  GLOFs can be very destructive to infrastructure—such as dams—yet the hydrological analysis in the company’s EIA documents did not adequately analyze the potential for these powerful events.  (I describe GLOFs and their potential impacts more here.)

Despite the Addendum’s numerous failings, COREMA then gave HidroAysén another chance, allowing the company until June 30th 2010 to author a Second Addendum in which to address these new comments.  Now, the company wants four more months to make its case that it should be allowed to build this hydroelectric power plant.

Actually, HidroAysén can take as long as it wants to submit the Addendum, as long as it formally asks for extensions. However, whether the document arrives June 30th, October 29th or even later, Chile’s environmental authority now has just 43 days total to make its decision to approve or reject the proposal.  During this period, the state agencies must analyze the document, and write and submit their comments, and COREMA must assess those observations and come to its final decision.  (I summarized the entire process here.)  This imbalance is designed to encourage commercial, but not necessarily responsible development.  The company can delay, and delay, and delay, but the government actors must work within a strict timeframe.  Any late or absent responses from the state reviewers are understood as approvals. 

Equally concerning is the absence of public participation in this process since 2008, during the initial review of HidroAysén’s EIA.  If history sets any example, the Second Addendum will be not a brief document (the EIA was 10,500 pages, and the first Addendum was 5000 pages), indicating that, together, the Addenda will contain an enormous amount of new material.  Yet civil society is excluded from filing comments on these documents, a fact which flies in the face of international standards.

Another major failing of the EIA documents is that they completely ignore the impacts of the transmission line.  The lines and the dams are part and parcel of the same scheme:  one serves no purpose without the other.  By separating them, HidroAysén has avoided addressing the major environmental concerns, which will be done in a separate, later review process instead.  The EIA and First Addendum also did not present any economic cost / benefit analyses or alternative options to the dams –both important components in international guidelines.

HidroAysén has now established a solid record of delaying its responsibilities in the environmental review process.  It has also typically followed these delays by submitting flawed, colossal documents that lack sufficient evidence to warrant approval – a fact pointed out by many of the state agencies in their comments.  Unless the Second Addendum addresses key issues like the transmission lines and GLOFs, can truly prove that Chile needs this energy, and describes why alternatives would be inadequate, this document will also fall in line with the company’s well-established pattern. 

We will have to wait until October 29th to find out.