Desert Deluge Shuts Copper Mines as Towns Engulfed in Chile

Torrential rain in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile forced the shutdown of some of the world’s largest copper mines as roads were cut and towns flooded. The army was placed in charge of public order in the region.

Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, shut all of its Atacama mines including Chuquicamata and Radomiro Tomic as the rains caused dangerous conditions for the giant trucks the mines depend on, the state-owned company said in a response to questions. The company kept some of its processing plants operating using stockpiled material and said in a separate statement that mines were gradually resuming operations.

The region is famed for being one of the driest places on earth, with the mining town of Calama receiving an average 6 millimeters (0.2 inch) of rain a year. Some rivers had dried up as a prolonged drought and exploitation by the mining industry exhausted water reserves. Television images showed water surging down previously dry river beds carrying debris accumulated over more than five years of drought. The situation may get worse.

“The northern region will have heavy rain in the next 12 hours,” Deputy Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy said. “We are talking about 15 to 30 millimeters.”

Two people are confirmed dead and 24 others, including two police officers, are missing, Aleuy told reporters late Wednesday.

The rains also forced Lundin Mining Corp. to close its Candelaria mine and Pan Pacific Copper Co. to shutter Caserones. Antofagasta Plc said its Michilla and Centinela mines were closed, while its biggest mine, Los Pelambres, continued to operate, according to a company official.

Spokesmen for Anglo American Plc, BHP Billiton Ltd., Glencore Plc, Southern Copper Corp. and Teck Resources Ltd. didn’t immediately provide details on operations in Chile.

Copiapo River

Many towns are situated in narrow valleys that cross the desert, making them vulnerable to flash floods.

The government called on people in the affected areas to evacuate, saying it was impossible for police or armed forces to reach all the zones because roads were cut.

Schools were closed across the region.

Chanaral Mayor Hector Volta told reporters that there was no power, water or telecommunications in the town. He called on authorities to send helicopters as people were trapped on the their roofs and in trees. Aleuy said evacuations could only be carried out by air with so many roads impassable.

The Copiapo River, 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Santiago, reappeared for the first time in a decade after the storm drenched the town of the same name. The river broke its banks after 1 p.m. local time, leaving the town’s hospital and center flooded.

Evacuation Order

The government called a state of emergency in the region and put the army in charge of relief efforts and security.

Caserones said eight worker buses got to their destination safely after landslides blocked the access road to the mine. Another 2,300 workers at safe at the mining camp and rescue workers picked up 50 tourists, the company said.

Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said 48,000 people remain without water and 38,000 without power following the storms.

Heavy rains also have triggered flooding in neighboring Peru. A mudslide on the outskirts of Lima killed eight people, destroyed homes and blocked a 400-meter stretch of the main highway from the capital into the Andes mountains.

Fog is restricting the movement of material in Southern Copper Corp.’s Toquepala and Cuajone mines in Peru, the Lima-based company said by e-mail. The delivery of concentrate from Cuajone to its smelter was halted for two days amid heavy rain, while deliveries from Toquepala were unaffected. Plants have been operating normally, Southern Copper said.

BHP and Glencore ’s Antamina continued to operate as landslides hit center-north Ancash region, mine spokesman Martin Calderon said. The highway is used to transport minerals from mines in the Andes to Lima’s port.

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