SANTIAGO, Aug 22 (Reuters) - BHP Billiton's Escondida copper mine in Chile has recovered from a six-week strike faster than expected, with output now running at normal levels, an executive with the company said on Tuesday.
The strike at Escondida, the world's largest copper mine, sent shockwaves through the market in February and March. It ended when the union representing the striking workers opted to return to work under the old contract, effectively pushing talks on a new deal into next year.
An early return to the negotiating table could be a possibility, Danny Malchuk, president of operations at BHP Minerals Americas, told journalists at a briefing in Santiago.
"There is a team working on that and it's something we are not ruling out," he said.
"If it happens, I would imagine it would be at the end of this year or the first quarter (of 2018)."
Escondida's output in 2017 also was affected by weather-related issues for about a week after heavy rain and snow disrupted operations in June, he added.
Copper on the London Metal Exchange rallied to its highest level in almost three years this week and is up nearly 20 percent this year on expectations of tighter supply.
The price rise "has made us very happy" Malchuk said, predicting an "extraordinary" 2018 for the company. But he cautioned that it would likely be another couple of years before the copper market reached balance. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Paul Simao)