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Barrick's Zaldivar copper mine is pictured in the foothills of the Antofagasta region, 1400 km (870 miles) north of Santiago, Chile April 15, 2013. Miners like Barrick have to go to great lengths to assure adequate supplies of water for everything from toilets for their workers to separating the valuable metals in the ore body from waste rock and tamping down dust that heavy trucks kick up. To match Feature MINING-WATER/ Picture taken April 15, 2013. REUTERS/Julie Gordon (CHILE - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY BUSINESS COMMODITIES)STAFF/Reuters

One of Chile's wealthiest families has emerged as a surprise bidder for Barrick Gold Corp.'s large copper mine in South America, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Empresas Copec, a forestry and energy conglomerate controlled by Roberto Angelini Rossi and his family, has been mulling an expansion into mining.

The Chilean company made it through the first two rounds of bidding for Barrick's Zaldivar mine and was expected to submit its third bid this week, sources said.

If Copec succeeds, Zaldivar would become the wood pulp producer's key mine. Copec owns two small copper and coal assets in Chile, the world's biggest producer of copper.

Copec is 60 per cent owned by AntarChile, the Angelini family's majority owned holding company.

Barrick's copper mine has attracted interest from private equity firms and major mining companies such as Canada's Teck Resources Ltd., China Molybdenum Co., Australia's BHP Billiton Ltd. and Chile's Antofagasta Plc.

It is not known which company will be in the lead after the third round of informal bidding is completed.

Zaldivar is one of the hottest assets to hit the market. The mine produced 222 million pounds of copper last year and has enough metal reserves in the ground to produce the same amount for 25 more years.

The difficulty for Barrick is the falling copper prices. The red metal, used in construction and energy generation, hit a six-year low earlier this week and is trading below $2.50 (U.S.) per pound due to China's economic slowdown.

The low copper value will make it harder for Barrick to extract a high price for the mine. It has also highlighted Zaldivar's production costs.

Barrick spent $1.79 to produce a pound of copper last year and expects to spend between $1.65 and $1.95 to produce a pound this year. Including indirect costs of mining such as overhead, Barrick is expected to spend as much as $2.30 to produce a pound of copper.

Although the copper mine is one of Barrick's best assets, company chairman John Thornton has vowed to reduce Barrick's $13-billion debt by at least $3-billion this year. The debt has hurt Barrick's stock, which has plummeted to its lowest level since 1989 amid weak gold prices.

Mr. Thornton recently laid out his plan to improve Barrick's fortunes, by focusing on the company's best performing gold mines in the Americas and slashing its debt. The company, the world's biggest gold producer, has said that it only wants to sell part of Zaldivar, but sources said Barrick has been open to looking at offers for the entire mine.

So far this year, Barrick has raised $850-million from mine sales, all of which is expected to be used to pay down debt.

The Canadian miner is also considering raising funds from one of its core gold mines, Pueblo Viejo in the Dominican Republic, sources have said.

A Barrick spokesman declined comment. Copec did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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