Glencore's copper operations in Peru and Chile utilise a process called heap leaching, in which a mildly acidic solution is sprayed over crushed copper ore to leach out the mineral. This represents a significant use of water at these sites. Our operation at Lomas Bayas, Chile, is collaborating with local universities to design and implement measures to reduce evaporation in the heap leaching process, thereby reducing water use at our sites and helping to conserve water resources in this water-scarce area. We have worked with the local authorities to determine a sustainable and equitable level of water use, but our operations have now reached a point where water use is becoming a constraining factor. If we are to increase production, we need to find ways of doing this that do not increase our total water use.
During 2009, we began replacing the existing sprinkler systems with more advanced drip irrigation systems that deliver the leaching solution into the ore concentrate heaps more accurately, uniformly and with much lower evaporative losses. In addition, during 2010 we began installing impermeable plastic covers over the irrigated areas. These steps reduced water use in the leaching process. During 2011, we will begin installing floating covers on the ponds storing water and the leaching solution. Based on pilot tests conducted at the site, these measures are expected to improve the efficiency of water use by 15% to 20%.
This water initiative lays the groundwork for future growth at the Lomas Bayas site. The improvements have reduced water consumption per unit of ore mined and have thus enabled an increase in irrigated areas using the same amount of fresh water. The project will facilitate development at Lomas Bayas while still complying with Glencore's and the local authority's water use standards and limits and without adding stress to vulnerable fresh water resources that the community depends upon. The first of its kind in the Antofagasta region of Chile, the project has received support from Chile's Economic Development Agency (CORFO).