Operator and majority owner BHP Billiton selected Bechtel to replace the Los Colorados concentrator at the Escondida mine with a new concentrator at Laguna Seca to produce copper as well as quantities of gold and silver.
Making significant progress at extraordinary heights
Decommissioning and demolishing the old plant and building the new one provides access to higher-grade ore beneath the existing facilities. Among other things, Bechtel is managing the switch-over, during which—for a time—three concentrators (Los Colorados, until it's taken offline, Laguna Seca, and another existing one) will be operating at once.
With a capacity of 152,000 metric tons per day, the new concentrator at Escondida will be the largest single-line unit ever built. We're working at an elevation of 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) in one of the driest deserts on the globe. Bechtel is no stranger; we've done much previous work there, including a billion-dollar 110-percent expansion between 1998 and 2002.
This project never sleeps
Apart from long hours at the mine site, engineering by hard-driving professionals is divided between Bechtel offices in Santiago and Taipei—12 hours apart.
That's not unusual for Bechtel, which frequently divides engineering between such other locales as Houston, London, New Delhi, Frederick (Maryland), Reston (Virginia), and many project sites around the world.
The mining complex is more than a hundred miles (about 170 kilometers) distant. For good reason, escondida means remote, hidden.
Escondida is physically, economically, and financially enormous
- The complex and its expansions provide thousands of jobs.
- It's the largest producing property majority owned by the world's largest copper producer, BHP Billiton.
- Chile produces about one-third of the world's copper, and copper accounts for about a fifth of the country's gross domestic product.
- Escondida alone—before the Organic Growth Project is complete—constitutes about 5 percent of global supply.
Driest place on Earth
If any industrial installation needs water, it's Escondida. Not only do mining operations use lots of it, but the Atacama Desert, a portion of which is home to the Escondida complex, is the driest place on Earth.
Average annual rainfall in the Atacama totals some six-tenths of an inch, or about 15 millimeters. Some locations, including Iquique, which Bechtel knows well, receive much less moisture than that—on the order of 80 percent less.
In some parts of the Atacama—which extends in a relatively narrow band, north to south, from southernmost Peru into northern Chile—humans have never recorded any precipitation. Yet more than a million people call it home.
Beyond the project
Bechtel business units are collaborating for yet another Escondida effort: a water-supply project. Bechtel's Mining & Metals, Oil, Gas & Chemicals, and Power units are working together on a project that will desalinate seawater and pump it from the port of Coloso to Escondida. The new facility will be the second desalination plant at Coloso and is meant to ensure a reliable, sustainable source of water for two copper concentrators.
Adding freshwater capacity is crucial to sustaining value for Minera Escondida's production and growth strategy. For the water-supply effort, we're constructing:
- a new seawater desalination plant with an intake and outfall system more than 65 feet (20 meters) below the surface of the Pacific
- two large-diameter, lined pipelines 112 miles (180 kilometers) in length
- four high-pressure pumping stations to move the water east from the port across the Atacama Desert and up to a reservoir at the mine site
- a section of pipeline tunnel more than a mile (1.9 kilometers) long to bypass the community of Coloso
- a high-voltage electrical system and substations
- 33 miles (53 kilometers) of 220-kilovolt transmission lines
- electrical substations