This Peruvian mine produces clean water for Arequipa

It’s not unusual that a mining company expanding operations would offset the environmental impact on the surrounding community.

But in the mountains of southern Peru, the American parent of the huge Cerro Verde copper mine offered nearby Arequipa, a city of 1 million people, more than a gesture.

As part of a $5 billion expansion, Cerro Verde, an affiliate of Freeport-McMoRan Inc., spent $500 million building the first wastewater treatment plant for Peru’s second largest city. For years, the city had dumped its raw sewage into the Chili River.

The plant helped the company, which needs a lot of water to refine copper ore. The plant also helps farmers downstream, as they are no longer using polluted water to irrigate their crops.

For the way it worked with the community, municipalities and the federal government, Sociedad Minera Cerro Verde — the mining operation’s formal name — is a 2016 winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE). The award goes to U.S. companies that uphold the highest ethical standards and exhibit the best of American values in their global work.

View inside large industrial facility (© Cerro Verde/Lance Lundstrom)
Some 360,000 tons of copper ore are crushed into sand and purified by these big mills every day, making Cerro Verde the world’s largest copper concentrator. (© Cerro Verde/Lance Lundstrom)

Copper has long been mined around historic Arequipa, nestled in the Andes and founded in the 16th century.

“Mining is a challenging business wherever we operate because of its impact on the environment and communities,” said Freeport-McMoRan President and CEO Richard Adkerson, whose company mines copper, cobalt and gold on four continents. “These issues are part of our senior management’s day-to-day lives. They’re not something you just assign to a sustainability group.”

The idea of the wastewater plant originated not with city managers but among Adkerson’s team at headquarters and in Peru. They first planned to construct another dam on the Chili River to get the massive amount of additional water needed, but that would have sparked controversy, Adkerson said, so “we came up with this idea of installing a wastewater collection system for the city.”

Freeport makes a practice of trying “to make life better for people nearby our mines that go beyond just paying taxes and royalties,” Adkerson said. Cerro Verde previously spent $120 million on a plant that ensured Arequipa residents had clean water 24 hours a day.

For the expansion, it held more than 20 community forums, posted information on social media and worked with universities on shaping its environmental impact plan. At the dedication ceremony, then–Prime Minister of Peru Pedro Cateriano said the “exemplary” project shows that mining can “respect the environment.”

The other 2016 ACE winners are the Bureo and Interface companies, which recycle fishing nets into skateboards and carpets; General Electric, which created an all-female business center in Saudi Arabia; McDonald’s Germany, which has hired 900 refugees for its restaurants; and Andela, which trains software developers in Lagos, Nigeria.