Chile’s government has rejected a controversial $2.5bn iron and copper mining project proposed in an important area for biodiversity and marine life.
The Dominga project, 70km north of the city of La Serena, would have seen an open-pit mine, processing and desalination plants, as well as a large port, installed just 30km from a famed Humboldt penguin reserve.
“Unanimously, the ministerial committee decided to accept the 12 objections raised, [and] as such, is left with an unfavourable impression of the Dominga mine and port project,” announced Chile’s environment minister, Maisa Rojas on Wednesday.
The committee found that the plan included insufficient efforts to mitigate the impact on nearby marine and nature reserves, which are home to bottlenose dolphins, several species of whale and the Humboldt penguin.
Since its conception, the Dominga project has been a flashpoint for environmental and political concerns.
It failed an environmental assessment in 2017, prompting the resignation of three ministers within the former president, Michelle Bachelet’s, government.
In 2021, the Pandora Papers leak revealed that then president Sebastián Piñera’s family and his associates were 56% majority stakeholders in the Dominga project.
It also uncovered evidence to suggest irregularities in the 2010 deal by which billionaire businessman Piñera’s family sold its stake in the project to close friend and business partner, Carlos Alberto Délano.
The leak suggested that a third installment of the payment contained a clause requiring the government not to strengthen environmental protections in the proposed area for the mine – although Piñera’s government eventually did so anyway.
In November 2021, Piñera narrowly survived a Senate impeachment vote prompted by the allegations.
Piñera, whose fortune amounts to $2.5bn according to Forbes magazine, rejected the accusations and argued that no irregularities had been found in the deal.
On Wednesday, protestors for and against the project braved the heat in Santiago, Chile’s capital, to demonstrate outside the environment ministry with banners and placards.
The announcement of the decision – fulfilling an election pledge made by Piñera’s successor Gabriel Boric – was greeted by cheers.
But the mayor of a town close to the project proposed site said: “When are we going to talk about people and stop talking about little fish and birds?”