Sinkhole puts Atacama mining-controlled area at risk of collapse

Sinkhole puts Atacama mining-controlled area at risk of collapse
Photo: Cristóbal Zúñiga Alcade

A mysterious sinkhole exceeding 36 meters in diameter — which appeared in the middle of a road in the Chilean city of Tierra Amarilla, in the Atacama desert — has led local authorities to warn that the area is at “high risk” of ground collapse. A safety perimeter was set up during the weekend.

On August 27, the Atacama region Committee for Disaster Risk Management stated that the decision to restrict access to the hole’s outskirts was taken since it “threatens the life and physical integrity of people.” The 200-meter-deep crater is only 600 meters away from a residential area.

The growing hole appeared in late July in a sandy area close to the Minera Ojos del Salado-controlled Alcaparrosa copper mine, nearly 665 kilometers north of the capital Santiago, part of a mining complex majority-owned by Canadian company Lundin Mining Corporation. Japanese groups control a 20 percent share of the area.

Experts are still investigating the exact reasons behind the sinkhole’s appearance. The government of President Gabriel Boric has accused Ojos del Salado — owned by the Canadian company— of soil “overexploitation.” Three public institutions are set to file legal actions against the company. 

The copper mine has been shut since early August. 

The Tierra Amarilla controversy is unfolding as Mr. Boric has entered a crusade against mining-related health and environmental impacts, shutting down polluting plants and promising to reduce mining accidents to zero. The leader must conciliate his commitments with the fact that Chile, the world’s biggest copper producer, has a mining-dependent economy.