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BHP Billiton to Build $2 Billion Desal Plant for Chilean Copper Mine

SANTIAGO, Chile

Australia-based mining company BHP Billiton will invest nearly $2 billion USD into a new seawater desalination facility in Chile. The development of the plant will guarantee water supply for continued operation of the Escondida mine.

“Securing a sustainable water supply in the Atacama Desert is a major priority for all Chilean copper producers, so approval of the Escondida Water Supply project is a significant milestone for our business,” Peter Beaven, copper president of BHP Billiton, said on July 25.

The facility will have the capacity to process 2,500 liters of water per second. Construction was planned to start before the end of July and will be completed in 2017.

It will require “the development of two pipelines, four high pressure pump stations, a reservoir at the mine site and high voltage infrastructure to support the system,” the company said.

BHP Billiton’s investment is related to its share of the total project. The company is operator of Escondida, in which it owns a 57.5 percent stake; the remainder is in the hands of Rio Tinto (30 percent), JECO Corporation (10 percent) and JECO 2 Ltd (2.5 percent).

The Atacama Desert is one of the world’s driest areas. “The new desalination facility will minimize our reliance on the region’s aquifers, which will help us to meet our environmental commitments and enable us to achieve our long-term business strategy,” said Beaven.

The mine is expected to increase its use of water when the 152,000-ton-per-day OGP1 copper concentrator starts operations.

The mine is at an altitude of 3,100 meters above sea level, and is 170 kilometers (southeast of the city of Antofagasta.

In May 2011, CAP -- a Chilean mining company -- signed a deal with Acciona Agua to construct a 52,000 cubic meter/day reverse osmosis desalination plant.

At the time, it was reported that the Chilean company had committed to spend $63.5 million USD on the project. Once in operation, the development would process an initial capacity of 17,000 cubic meters/day.

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