SANTIAGO — A $3.2 billion hydroelectric project in Chile -- seen as a key to new development in the South American nation but questioned for its environmental impact -- faces a key test this week.
An environmental panel was expected to vote Monday on the HidroAysen project, but appeals and challenges are widely expected.
The project would call for the construction of five hydroelectric power stations, two along the Baker River and three on the Pascua River, in an area some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles south of Santiago).
A project under consideration for 50 years, it would generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity to help meet Chile's growing energy needs.
Approval by the regional environmental panel is widely expected, but the plan faces opposition from environmental groups seeking to protect the Patagonia region.
Moreover, the paths used for some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of power cables and towers would be subject to further review.
A coalition called "Chilean Patagonia Without Dams" contends the project is not needed and would endanger pristine forests in a region that includes widely admired glaciers and lakes.
The opponents claim that the project would disfigure wilderness areas of Patagonia, with the flooding of some 5,900 hectares (14,000 acres). They say the environmental review has been inadequate, and that Chile would do better with less damaging energy sources such as solar and wind.
One poll in April showed 61 percent of Chileans opposed the project, but the consortium of Chile's Endesa and the Spanish firm Colbun SA has launched its own public relations effort, claiming the project would be clean, renewable energy that would reduce demand for imported fossil fuels.
Opponents plan marches against the project and may file appeals if it wins approval, a spokesman said.
But President Sebastian Pinera said the country, which is seeing economic growth estimated at 6.5 percent and has had to ration electricity, has few better alternatives, especially with nuclear power being reconsidered in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
"If HidroAysen is approved it would be 100 percent in compliance with environmental legislation," Pinera said over the weekend.
"If we don't have hydroelectric energy, there will be more coal-fired power plants."
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