By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO, May 23 (Reuters) – Chile’s constitutional court
said it would not get involved in a dispute between a
foreign-backed miner and state-run copper miner Codelco over
adjoining lithium deposits in the Maricunga salt flat, according
to a court document seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Salar Blanco, 50 percent-owned by Australia’s Lithium Power
International, with smaller stakes held by Canada’s
Bearing Lithium, filed suit in March before the court
alleging that Codelco was constitutionally barred
from mining lithium.

In an accompanying lawsuit before a lower court that has not
yet issued a ruling, Salar Blanco also argued that Codelco’s
permit overlapped its own and was issued in error.

But the constitutional court on Wednesday declined to weigh
in on the dispute. In a written decision, it said it was “the
responsibility of the lower-court judge” who is reviewing the
case and was not a constitutional issue.

Codelco celebrated the Constitutional Court decision as a
victory, saying the decision was “unappealable.”

It was unclear when the lower court might issue a ruling.

Salar Blanco did not immediately respond to a request for
comment.

Codelco was granted a permit to operate in Maricunga by
Chile’s outgoing center-left government in March, marking the
copper giant’s first foray into lithium, one of the world’s
hottest commodities and a key ingredient in cellphone, tablet
and electric vehicle batteries.

At the same time, regulators granted Salar Blanco a permit
to extract about 473,135 tonnes of lithium carbonate over 30
years, also in Maricunga.

The dispute between the two miners is being watched closely
by investors and foreign miners anxious to invest in Chile,
which is home to half of the world’s lithium reserves.

Maricunga’s 90 square miles (145 square km) make it less
than 5 percent the size of the sprawling Salar de Atacama in
northern Chile, home to top lithium producers Albemarle
and SQM , but Salar Blanco has described it
as one of the “highest-grade lithium brine salars globally.”
(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing
by Peter Cooney)