UPDATE – Brazil judge suspends initial license of 3,300-MW Jirau

A federal court in Brazil’s Rondonia State has issued an injunction suspending an initial environmental license for construction of the 3,300-MW Jirau hydroelectric project on the Madeira River in Brazil’s Amazon Region.

Brazilian media reported the attorney for Brazil’s environmental regulator, Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renovaveis (Ibama), said the agency would file an appeal of the injunction, which was issued November 20 but not disclosed until the weekend.

The injunction was granted by Federal District Judge Elcio Arruda at Porto Velho on the petition of Forum Brasileiro de ONGs e Movimentos Sociais para o Meio Ambiente e o Desenvolvimento (Brazil Forum of NGOs and Social Movement for the Environment and Development). NGOs are non-governmental organizations, generally lobbying and activist groups.

Only days earlier, Ibama issued the initial license to Consorcio Energia Sustentavel do Brasil (Enersus), a consortium of Suez Energy South America Participacoes Ltda.; Eletrosul Centrais Eletricas S/A; Companhia Hidro Eletrica do Sao Francisco (CHESF); and Camargo Correa Investimentos em Infra-Estrutura S/A. (HNN 11/17/08)

The consortium won a May concession to build and operate Jirau. However, controversy arose when a competing consortium and government agencies argued Enersus broke environmental regulations by changing the location of the proposed hydro project. (HNN 8/27/08) Enersus said it planned to move the Jirau dam nine kilometers downriver as a way to save 1 billion reais (US$626 million).

Ibama President Robert Messias said November 13 that the initial environmental license would be issued and that change in the project location would not cause additional environmental effects.

State-run Agencia Brasil said that studies by Ibama showed environmental effects of the new design would be similar to the previous proposal. Messias added if developers fail to meet environmental conditions imposed on the license it could be revoked.

Environmental Minister Carlos Minc said the new site actually would reduce environmental effects. Minc said the change would inundate only 80 percent of the reservoir area of the previous site.

Messias said Ibama’s review was not compromised despite pressure from developers for a decision prior to the start of the rainy season in northern Brazil. It is important that construction of Jirau begin before rainy season begins in the Amazon state of Rondonia, or the window for the project’s start would be closed for six months at least until rains recede.

Brazil’s national water agency, Agencia Nacional de Aguas (ANA), already authorized construction of a caisson, a watertight chamber for underwater work on the project, as well as withdrawal of water to meet needs of the initial works. However, ANA President Jose Machado said a final license for the work will depend on presentation of a project for construction of ship locks.

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