Chañaral is a small, coastal town and commune in the Atacama Region of Chile and is capital of the Chañaral Province. The town of Chañaral was originally a fishing centre in the 19th century and later became a commercial port for the export of iron, copper and related products from the nearby mines.
In 1824, Diego de Almeyda made the discovery of the large natural deposits of copper in the area, and was the first in the mining industry in Chile to export it. For this reason, the town was founded on 26 October 1833 as Chañaral de las Ánimas (“Chañaral of the Souls”). A few years later, Pedro Lujan discovered ore at El Salado, where a mine was built, and in 1836 a shipping port promising raw material was constructed. The great boom in Chañaral began in 1860 when A. Edwards & Company was inaugurated.
From 1938 to 1975 the Potrerillos and later (from 1959) the El Salvador copper mines disposed of their tailings in the normally dry Rio Salado which outflows into Chañaral Bay. Over that period it is believed that some 250Mt of tailings were discharged into the bay forming a deposit up to 10-15m thick and creating a beach extending approximately 1km by 4.5km long. Most of this artificial beach is above the high water mark and is permanently dry. The tailings also extend out from the shoreline under the sea for a further 2km or more.
In 1975 the El Salvador mine, was instructed to cease the dumping of mine wastes in Chañaral Bay. Consequently, in that year, a concrete channel was built to take discharges from the Rio Salado, 10km upstream from Chañaral beach, to deposit at Punta Palitos, between Chañaral Bay and the Pan de Azúcar National Park. A further 130Mt of untreated tailings was dumped at this location.
In 1990, tailings disposal on the coast finally ended after 52 years. The disposal of tailings from the Potrerillos and El Salvador mines into the Rio Salado, and their subsequent accumulation in Chañaral Bay, has been described by the United Nations Environmental Programme as one of the Pacific’s most serious cases of pollution.
Copper Bay’s initiative to rehabilitate Chañaral Bay has received a high level of support from all involved parties, specifically government, environmental and local and community bodies. The project provides a tremendous opportunity to clean up the environment while at the same time rewarding its investors with capital growth.