(Adds union president's comments, background details)
By Fabian Cambero
ANTOFAGASTA, Chile Feb 8 BHP Billiton Plc
has begun halting operations at its Escondida
copper mine in northern Chile, the world's largest, ahead of a
planned strike on Thursday, a union leader told Reuters on
The company has said it plans to stop production at the mine
during a strike, which the union has warned could be lengthy,
potentially affecting global supplies of a metal used in
everything from construction to telecommunications.
"Right now the sulfide leaching plant has stopped, the
electrowinning B1 and B2 plants have stopped and the other
plants are stopping and what they (the company) are going to do
is stockpile (copper)," said Patricio Tapia, the president of
Escondida Union No.1.
BHP Billiton said on Tuesday it would halt production during
the strike because it could not guarantee the safety of the 80
workers the government had authorized to remain at the mine to
perform "critical duties", such as equipment upkeep and
adherence to environmental protocols.
"If the company said it's not going to be producing, then
they don't need so many workers," Tapia said. The union will
bring to court the issue of how many workers will remain at
Escondida during the work stoppage, Tapia added.
The strike is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. local time (1100
GMT) on Thursday.
Copper prices rose on Wednesday after the world's top two
mines said strikes and permit delays would force them to cut
output, squeezing global supply.
Escondida is majority-controlled by BHP, with Rio Tinto
and Japan's JECO also holding stakes.
(Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by W Simon and Paul