Desalination plant expansion project ensures resilient, sustainable water supply in Chile

BHP, the world’s largest mining company, recently celebrated the completion of the Escondida Water Supply Expansion (EWSE) project at its Minera Escondida mine in Chile. The expansion increases the mine’s desalination capacity to the point where 100 percent of its needs can be self-supplied with desalinated water, helping to protect local groundwater resources while ensuring a more sustainable, resilient and reliable water future.

Black & Veatch served as designer and engineer of record on the EWSE project and the original Escondida Water Supply (EWS) project, heralded as one of the largest, most complex desalination infrastructure projects in South America.

Completion of the EWSE project comes amidst mining’s growing focus on sustainability and resilience. Minera Escondida is in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile, one of the driest regions in the world and water is at a premium. With the Monturaqui aquifer closing in late 2019, BHP, the mine’s majority owner and operator, realised the need to bolster desalination capabilities.

The project builds upon Black & Veatch’s history of providing water production, water conveyance and desalination services to BHP. In 2013, the company was selected to lead the engineering design, procurement, field inspection and pre-commissioning for the marine and desalination elements of the EWS project, which was completed in 2017.

When it came time to expand the Escondida desalination facilities, BHP again turned to Black & Veatch, hiring the global engineering company to serve as engineer of record for the water production, water conveyance and high-voltage components of the project, providing engineering, procurement, construction management services, pre-commissioning and commissioning services.

The EWSE project involved multiple components to increase desalinated water production capacity by 833 litres per second (l/s) while expanding water conveyance capacity by 1,438 l/s. The project began in June 2017 and was commissioned one week ahead of schedule, on December 25, 2019.

“The project was executed on a tight timeline, but Black & Veatch was well-positioned to deliver on this work, given our knowledge of the original EWS project and the client,” said Jim Spenceley, Senior Vice President of Black & Veatch’s Mining business. “This knowledge allowed us to identify efficiencies, reducing the amount of time to construct and commission and allowing us to safely deliver EWSE ahead of schedule.”

The original EWS infrastructure was developed with expansion in mind, and Black & Veatch’s design allowed BHP to adopt an optimised solution that used the existing EWS footprint, helping to lower capital costs. Replicating equipment used in the EWS project also helped standardise and simplify operations and maintenance.

“Black & Veatch provided the in‐depth knowledge and experience to undertake this strategic project on behalf of BHP and to successfully complete EWSE,” said Iain Humphreys, Business Line Director and head of the company’s regional office in Santiago, Chile. “Having worked on both projects really pays testament to the high skill level and deep experience of all our professionals.”

Between the two projects – the original EWS desalination plant and the EWSE – Black & Veatch worked more than 3 million worker-hours without a recordable safety incident.

To complete the project safely, ahead of schedule and with the highest quality standards, Black & Veatch placed significant resources behind the project. A diverse international team contributed – the core team of local professionals located in Santiago was supported by Black & Veatch professionals from multiple U.S. states, plus the UK, India, Chile, El Salvador, Cuba and Colombia. The project also had a 25% female participation rate, supporting BHP’s corporate goal of gender diversity.