By Oscar Martínez Bruna, Latin America editor
ANTOFAGASTA, Chile–September 9, 2018, will undoubtedly mark one of the most important milestones in the history of mining in Chile. That day, the last blast was heard at the deepest level of the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. The Chuquicamata mine, owned by the Chilean state-owned company Codelco, is celebrating 103 years as a standard of copper mining in Chile and as one of the world’s leading copper producers. It is also preparing for its transition to an underground mine. The idea is to transform “Chuqui” into a technologically advanced underground “super mine” that will use the block-caving process and prolong the life of the mine in at least 40 years.
In its origins, the nortino mineral of Chuquicamata was exploited by the indigenous peoples of the area, the “Chucos” Indians, who were the first to discover the properties of copper and worked it to make tools and weapons. From them comes the name, “Chuquicamata,” whose meaning is “limit of the land of the Chucos” and also “Punta de Lanza.” After belonging to the North American mining companies Chile Exploration Co. and Anaconda Copper Mining Co., in 1969, the state of Chile acquired 51% of the shares and, after the nationalization of copper, in July 1971, Chuquicamata passed to be 100% Chilean. On April 1, 1976, Codelco the largest state-owned company in the history of Chile, the basis of its economy, was created and Chuquicamata became an integral part of it.
Last year, Chuquicamata produced 330,000 tons of copper, while the rest of Codelco’s operations produced 1,734 million tons. The company has projected that the annual production of the mine, after its transition from open pit to underground, will be 320,000 tons of fine copper and 15,000 tons of molybdenum.
It is necessary to clarify, however, that this “Last Blast” had a more ceremonial significance since the extraction in the open pit of 1,100 meters will continue, but only until the so-called “Phase 49,” and the blasting will decrease in frequency and in the amount of energy released until mid-2020. Codelco’s plan is to start underground operations in July 2019, but this new phase will begin with a mixed extraction process.