MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining project threatens Uruguay ecosystems

Published by MAC on 2011-04-27
Source: Observatorio Minero del Uruguay (2011-04-11)

Mining project threatens various ecosystems

Uruguayans and tourists - beware!

By Víctor L. Bacchetta

Observatorio Minero del Uruguay

11 April 2011

Although a proper evaluation has not been made of its impacts, the installation of an open-pit iron mine in the center of Urugay - with a 230 km long ore slurry pipeline leading to an important port on the ocean coast - has been announced by Brazilian company, Zamin Ferrous. Such a project would affect the ecosystem and pastoral farming in the Cuchilla Grande, palm groves and wetlands, the Laguna Negra, the environment, tourism and the coastal populations of Rocha.

Zamin Ferrous, better known in Uruguay by the name Minera Aratirí, has been carrying out research and exploration work in iron ore reserves in the areas surrounding Valentines and Cerro Chato and in the departments of Florida, Durazno, Treinta y Tres and Cerro Largo, to determine the viability of carrying out mining production which would require a capital outlay of 2,000 million US dollars.

Growing conflict

The mining company is interested in an area of 110,000 hectares, which is currently occupied by more than 350 pastoral farming producers. It is an atypical area of the country, since the pieces of land are medium to small, and also because of the number of family producers who have lived and worked on this land for several generations.

The presence of Aratirí has generated growing concerns and conflict among the producers who made amicable agreements at the beginning. The mining work is carried out 24 hours a day using floodlights and generators to light the area as if it were daytime, with constant human and vehicular traffic.

The 30 tonne drills are steadied on 100 meter squared platforms, with two nearby wells for the provision of water. The coming and going of 25 to 30 trucks, even during the rainy season, has caused serious damage to the ground and has consequently harmed production. The unsuccessful complaints about this damage have deteriorated relations between producers and the company, even leading to legal action.

Due to these precedents, when the company tried to begin work in Treinta y Tres in January 2010, the producers showed their opposition and demanded that all of the necessary legal paperwork be completed. In June, faced with a demand for 4.075 hectares which would affect 30 producers, 29 presented an appeal against the granting of permission to the National Office for Mining and Geology.

During the months of July and August, in the department of Florida, a high percentage of producers who had already made agreements for mining exploration on part of their lands refused to allow it for the remainder. In Durazno a significant number of producers have revoked their earlier permission for drilling.

What the mine would be like

Aratirí plans to open 8 to 10 pits measuring 200 hectares each (2 km long and 1 km wide) and some 300 metres deep, each with an iron grinding and separation plant and enormous waste deposits which could amount to 70% of the rock extracted from the ground.

Using huge quantities of explosives, these lands will be lost forever, completely eliminating the fertile layer of soil. The current inhabitants, whether voluntarily or by force, will have to leave the area. Even activity in surrounding areas will be seriously affected due to water contamination, enormous rock deposits and sediments and dust, in addition to the noise and destruction of the countryside and the social and cultural context.

In presentations carried out by the company, and also in information supplied by the ministries involved (Industry, Energy and Mining and Housing, Land Planning and Environment), it remains to be explained what the source of the energy supply would be (25 megawatts, 15% of the country's total consumption) nor that of the water required for the process, including the 230 km long, 62cm diameter pipeline for transferring the iron to the port.

The results of the environmental impact evaluation that the company had to present to the National Office for the Enviroment in order to obtain authorisation, are also unknown, as are the government's forecast for work of this magnitude.

However, authorities and company members admit to unofficial negotiations over the project's pre-conditions and the Aratirí representative announced that a government body has assigned land belonging to the State of Rocha for building of the port.

There is no other industrial activity which is so aggressive environmentally, socially and culturally as open-pit mining, especially in populated and farmed places such as in this case.

What the port would be like

If this activity is authorised, Aratirí plans to extract 10 million tonnes of iron annually and export them to China. In order to be able to do this an ore slurry pipeline would need to be built, crossing the departments of Lavalleja and Rocha to La Angostura beach along the 288 km of Route 9, between the La Esmeralda and Punta del Diablo beach resorts, where a deep-water port for a variety of uses would be located.

On 13 February, agriculturist Arturo Abella, a member of the Neighbours' Network of La Esmeralda, revealed two graphs with a design of the plant of the planned port and its main components on Channel 8 in Rocha. It would be a huge structure with two separate parallel piers, 2,5 km apart, and 4 km out to sea, and an operating area reaching to Laguna Negra.

The distance between the port and the beach resorts mentioned would be less than if a pier were built from the coast to the offshore point. Abella presented a second document, showing the design of the complex port super-imposed onto a satellite photo of the current coast in this area.

The port plant allows us to evaluate various details of the project. On solid ground are shown: 1. Thermal power station; 2. Consolidated plant; 3. Tank station; 4. RORO (Roll on-Roll Off transport), general cargo; 5. Mineral park; 6. Silo park; 7. Stock area - Containers; and 8. Extension area. In the piers there will also be: 9. Grain terminal; 10. Container terminal; 11. Coal terminal; 12. Iron terminals; 13. Oil terminal; and 14. Gas terminal.

A port of this size requires electricity, but the generating plant only meets the needs of the mine. A thermal power station uses fresh water for the turbines, to cool the equipment, etc. which is why it has been situated in the Laguna Negra. Uruguay imports oil and obtains natural gas either in its direct or liquid form, but what is the coal for? Zamin also planned to generate energy using coal.

An uncertain future

It has emerged that the responsible Uruguayan government body would not accept coal generation as it is highly harmful from an environmental point of view, but it is known that within the government as a whole there are various positions on this.

Several authorities, both on a departmental and a national scale, speak in favour of the project, but neither the company Aratirí nor the corresponding public bodies have yet presented the evaluations required by law on the impact generated by an undertaking of this scale on an economic, social, environmental and cultural level on the regions affected, the ecosystem and their inhabitants.

Producers in the region and the populations of Cerro Chato have organised public debates to consider the opinion of society on this issue. On the Rocha coast neighbours concerned about the impact are also joining forces, and gathering signatures of support for legal action ensuring that the necessary legal guarantees are applied and that the government refuses to authorise this project.

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