The next phase in HidroAysen's environmental review has begun, but don't expect a sufficient EIA

Yesterday, HidroAysén – the company proposing a massive hydroelectric scheme in Chile’s Patagonia – began the next phase of its environmental impact review by submitting replies to the 1,114 criticisms that state agencies filed about its environmental impact assessment during the last phase in the autumn of 2009.  Next month, the Regional Environmental Commission will decide whether to approve the project, ask for more information, or reject it outright.  It is almost certain that HidroAysén’s latest documents will still not produce information sufficient to warrant its approval or meet international standards, and in that case, it should be rejected. 

Chile’s two largest energy companies, Endesa Chile and Colbún, first submitted the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for their joint venture, HidroAysén, in August 2008.  They propose to construct five dams on two of Patagonia’s wildest and most pristine rivers, the Baker and the Pascua.  This 2750 MW hydroelectric plant would also require a 1200-mile long transmission line to carry the proposed output to the country’s demand center further north.  The line would necessitate a 100-yard wide service lane running underneath the length of the line, clear cutting a swath through national parks, protected areas, different administrative regions and countless private properties.  And the dams’ construction would also include many smaller, ancillary projects, such as coastal ports, a smaller sixth dam to generate power for construction, kilometers of new roads, a sanitation plant, and more.

HidroAysén’s colossal 10,000-page EIA was criticized widely by the public and the state agencies, who together filed thousands of criticisms of the document’s lack of essential information and correct data. The project should have been rejected then and there.  Instead, the Regional Environmental Commission asked the company to return with additional information addressing those observations.  So last October, HidroAysén submitted what they called an “Addendum” to the EIA.  This was again criticized by the agencies for the same faults, which I described here.  Again, the project should have been rejected for lacking sufficient and essential information.  And again, the Commission asked for more information instead.  See a pattern here? 

Yesterday’s latest submission, called the “Second Addendum” should answer those questions.  Yet the scope of the EIA’s faults to date, and the items that have been omitted all along, make it virtually impossible for HidroAysén to cover them all in the 1,400 page document they submitted yesterday.  The most blaring problems with the EIA have been:

  • The complete omission of the environmental impacts of the transmission line.  According to international standards, the dams and the lines are two components of the same project and should be evaluated as such.  However, HidroAysén has managed to avoid including the line’s impacts from their project’s review process altogether.
  • The misidentification of the most basic and crucial scientific data, including the baseline data, the type of rock on which the dams would be constructed, the flooding zones, and more.
  • The improper plan for forest and deforestation management, which a new study from the Center for Scientific Research in the Patagonia describes in detail.
  • The lack of a description of the costs and benefits of the project, which would justify its construction and describe the need for the dams’ output.  A 2009 technical study proved that HidroAysén’s generation is simply not necessary for the country’s future energy security, but the company has never responded.
  • The lack of consideration of alternatives to this plant, including the “no option” alternative, which is standard to EIA processes in other developed countries.  As a new OECD country, Chile should use the same standards as its peers.  Other technologies, like non-conventional renewables and efficiency, can more than meet the projected output of the dams –a 2008 study found that these two sectors could meet over 70% of the country’s needs—without the same environmental impacts.
  • Concern for the potential effects of climate change on the dams, notably the increasing occurrence of glacial lake-sourced floods, which can threaten the integrity and functioning of the dams.  A recent symposium in Santiago with international experts highlighted the urgency of gaining a better understanding of these phenomena and other glacial hazards before advancing with infrastructure projects in the region.

These concerns are all part of the most basic aspects of a quality EIA.  And they are all missing from HidroAysén’s documents.  So far, the reviewing state agencies have worked admirably in identifying the document’s shortcomings.  As the agencies and the Commission analyze this latest EIA over the coming weeks, HidroAysén will no doubt be putting on the pressure for their proposal’s approval.  But these agencies should not slacken their resolve in the face of increasing political pressure to approve the dams. 

On the contrary, if the EIA submitted yesterday still does not provide the sufficient and essential information to merit approval, the company should not be given any more time.  If, after over two years, HidroAysén still cannot get it right, this massive and destructive project should be rejected outright.