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SANTIAGO, July 6 (Reuters) - A Chilean environmental regulator's probe into whether a group of endangered short-tailed chinchillas was harmed by attempts to move them so that a gold mine could be built will likely wrap up "in the coming months," the environmental regulator's head told Reuters.
South Africa's Gold Fields Ltd, which is building the $860 million Salares Norte mine, has been working with Chilean authorities since 2020 to relocate the animals.
The Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) in November 2020 ordered a halt to the relocation efforts after one of the 25 giant rodents in the colony suffered a broken leg and two others died.
Cristobal de la Maza, the head of the regulator, told Reuters on Tuesday it was weighing a finding of serious failures in the project to rescue the chinchillas. According to the SMA's regulations, findings of serious failure can result in stiff fines or suspension of the mine's environmental permits.
"Right now the investigation is wrapping up and we hope to be able to establish in the coming months whether the company complied with the measures laid out in its environmental permit," he told Reuters in a statement.
Gold Fields has declined to comment pending the SMA's findings.
Hunted for centuries for their thick, soft pelt, the short-tailed chinchilla is now classed as critically endangered and is found only high in the Andes Mountains.
Salares Norte is located 1,000 kilometers north of the capital Santiago at an altitude between 3,900 and 4,700 meters above sea level in the Andes Mountains close to the Argentine border.
The mining project's original environmental impact assessment had committed moving 25 chinchillas from rocky outcrops where they have been living on the intended site of the mine. The project to move them, which cost $400,000, began last August. Gold Fields had planned to complete construction by the end of 2022, to start production in 2023. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero in Santiago Writing by Aislinn Laing Editing by Matthew Lewis)