LIMA (Reuters) - Peru wants to double maximum penalties for companies that pollute, part of a new plan to beef up its environmental enforcement as the government investigates two mining accidents and struggles to quell opposition to extractive projects.
Peru is a top exporter of gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin, among other metals, and the mining sector draws billions of dollars in foreign investment that critics say has not always trickled down to people in poor rural towns.
"The willingness to at least double the maximum possible penalty (for environmental infractions) exists in this administration," Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told reporters. "We are working hard to strengthen enforcement."
Current fines can run from 2 million soles($769,000) to 30 million soles.
In late June, a pipeline pumping a toxic slurry from the copper mine Antamina burst, sickening more than 200 locals, and last week the zinc mine Atacocha spilled mining waste over several kilometers into the Huallaga River in the Amazon.
Antamina is owned by global firms BHP Billiton Ltd, Xstrata, Teck Cominco Ltd and Mitsubishi Corp, and Atacocha is controlled by the local company Grupo Milpo and Brazil's Votorantim.
The environment ministry's oversight body, OEFA, is investigating both incidents, but Pulgar-Vidal said his ministry needs better tools, like bigger fines and a faster process for imposing them.
"We think this is an effective mechanism and that it will send the right message to Peruvians who want the state to enforce its environmental laws," Pulgar-Vidal said.
Pulgar-Vida said his office will ask the president's cabinet to approve the rules in two weeks.
President Ollanta Humala has promised to foster a new relationship between the mining industry and local towns and their natural environments, but his one-year old administration has been tested by the more than 250 social conflicts across Peru, many of them over the extraction of natural resources.
He recently proposed moving the approval of environmental impact statements from the mining ministry, and suspended the government's support for a controversial mining project, which would be one of the biggest investments in Peru's history.
($1 = 2.6 soles)
(Reporting by Omar Mariluz; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)