The quest by Chile's Collahuasi copper mine to find a new route to resume shipments in the wake of a port accident that forced it to suspend exports may be hobbled by environmental and logistical problems at the closest alternative facility.

The struggle by the world's No. 3 copper mine to find a route with appropriate docking facilities and permits to allow exports to resume appears set to prolong global supply fears that pushed copper prices to a new record on Tuesday.

The giant mine, which produces 3.3 percent of the world's mined copper or 535,000 tones per year, suspended shipments on Monday after a shiploader accident killed three workers and closed its Patache port terminal over the weekend.

The mine declared force majeure on Monday-- essentially freeing it from liability if it cannot deliver copper shipments to buyers on time. A senior port official said repairs could take at least a month.

The Patillos port, just 5 km north of Patache, requires Collahuasi to have environmental permits to export from the facilities, which are used mostly to load salt. The main user of the port, salt producer Sociedad Punta de Lobos, has tripled salt exports due to the cold snap freezing roads in Europe, signaling another roadblock for Collahuasi.

Geographically it makes sense, but I doubt they can get the permits, said a former senior Collahuasi executive. Salt is not a contaminant so the environmental standards at salt ports are very different from those of a mine port.

Other ports are either too far, lack immediate docking space or don't have the needed infrastructure to transport the material, experts said.

Logistics now seem like a real nightmare for Collahuasi, said a Santiago-based trader. I don't think they will be able to ship much out via other big ports immediately.


Collahuasi has now declared force majeure twice this year. A protest by temporary workers forced the mine to briefly shutdown operations in May.

The latest export disruption also comes on the heels of a month-long workers strike and could harbor more risks to operations.

Industry experts said that if the export stoppage drags on for too long the mine could have to lower output as inventory capacity reaches its limit.

Still, Collahuasi could have some breathing room after it loaded some 52,000 wet tones of copper concentrate in several shipments in December alone.

A shipment departed shortly before the accident on Saturday.

Collahuasi, which is jointly owned by Anglo American and Xstrata produced 43,126 tones of copper cathodes and 492,727 tones of concentrate in 2009 -- most of which was sold to China, India and Japan, according to the company's annual report.

While the latest disruption in Collahuasi's exports helped drive copper prices to new records, the red metal dipped slightly early on Wednesday on some profit-taking.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Alden Bentley)