Indigenous groups in Chile’s Atacama push to shut down top lithium miner SQM

(Reuters) – Indigenous groups in Chile’s lithium-rich Atacama salt flat, fresh off a resounding legal victory earlier this week, said on Friday they will push to see top lithium miner SQM’s environmental permits revoked and its operations shut down.

SQM Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile is a Chilean chemical company and a supplier of plant nutrients, iodine, lithium and industrial chemicals. It is the world’s no. 2 producer of battery metal lithium.

The Atacama Indigenous Council (CPA) in 2019 filed a lawsuit demanding regulators scrap a $25 million remediation plan developed by SQM after officials charged the miner with over-pumping lithium-rich brine from the salt flat.

The indigenous groups won, but the regulator earlier this year appealed to Chile’s Supreme Court, defending the SQM plan. On Wednesday, however, the regulator suddenly pulled out of the legal battle, forcing SQM to start again from scratch on a new, potentially tougher, plan.

The indigenous council, an umbrella group for the native communities that ring the salt flat, celebrated their victory but said it did not go far enough.

“We will make every effort to see SQM’s [environmental permits] revoked,” said council president Sergio Cubillos. “The damages committed by this company are immeasurable and they must assume their responsibility.”

SQM told Reuters that the regulator’s Wednesday decision will allow those involved to “focus on the concerns of the communities.”

SQM earlier this month struck an agreement with Camar, one of 18 communities along the flat, seeking more fluid dialogue with indigenous groups. Though the miner did not reveal the details of the deal, the community of Camar said in a statement the pact would improve SQM’s stewardship of the flat.

Some of the charges lodged against SQM by the environmental regulator in 2016 – and once again under consideration – are serious enough to warrant the revocation of SQM’s permits. But that outcome is widely considered unlikely and would only occur if the miner and the regulator do not reach agreement on remediation and compliance measures.

The heightened tensions nonetheless catch the company in a tight spot. SQM, the world’s no. 2 producer of battery metal lithium, is seeking to expand the production capacity of its Chile operations to meet an expected spike in demand.

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