COYHAIQUE, CHILE—An unexpected decision by an appeals court in Puerto Montt, Chile, yesterday put on hold a proposal to build five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Patagonian region of Aysén. The court agreed to examine claims of irregularities in the environmental review of the $3.2 billion HidroAysén project, which was approved by the local government on 9 May.
The hydroelectric scheme, backed by the Chilean Colbún and Spanish-Italian Endesa companies, is designed to generate power for central Chile; its reservoirs would flood nearly 6000 hectares of Patagonian land. Long opposed by environmentalists, the project has sparked massive protests throughout Chile since its approval last month.
Opponents, including local entrepreneurs, objected that the review of the dams by the Commission for Environmental Assessment and approval by the government violated their constitutional rights. They also said that critical information—such data on the risk of landslides and tsunamis around reservoirs—had been ignored in the review. The court has allowed 3 months to resolve the appeal.
Universidad de Concepción hydrological engineer Claudio Meier, a consultant who reviewed the document for the government, said, "Some basic aspects were missing in the baseline [environmental assessment] chapter, such as actual bed-load measurements; ecology of potentially impacted species … and effects of changes in water and sediment flows on river morphology." Without such data it is impossible to adequately evaluate impacts or ensure safety, he said.
HidroAysén's lawyer, Mario Galindo, told the Chilean media that the court's action "does not affect us at all, nor the schedules … for the implementation of the project." The company reported that within the next few days it will be required to return to court to defend the 9 May decision approving the dams.