MAC: Mines and Communities

Argentine Environmental Group Files Complaint Against Xstrata Copper

Published by MAC on 2011-06-13
Source: CEDHA Press Release (2011-06-01)

Argentine Environmental Group Files Complaint in Australia Against Xstrata Copper for Destroying Glaciers and Permafrost

CEDHA Press Release

1 June 2011

The environmental and human rights organization CEDHA along with two other environmental groups, lodged a complaint today against Xstrata Copper in Australia, accusing the multinational mining company of destroying glaciers and permafrost in two of its operations in Argentina, El Pachón and Filo Colorado.

The complaint, filed before an office of the Australian government which oversees abidance by Australian multinationals of the OECD Guidelines for MNEs, follows a recent report published by the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), showing extensive impacts by Xstrata's El Pachón project in San Juan Province to rock glaciers and permafrost zones in the high Andes Mountains. CEDHA published another report in February, also showing extensive glacier impacts by Xstrata by its Filo Colorado copper project near Xstrata's Mina la Alumbrera.

When first confronted with glacier impacts at Filo Colorado, Xstrata Copper categorically denied the presence of glaciers at the project site. A company representative said, "there are no glaciers in that mountain range (referring to the Sierras del Aconquija which reaches altitudes of 5,000 meters).

Ironically, however, the cover of Xstrata's Environmental Impact Assessment for Filo Colorados hows a prominent rock glacier impacted by a road introduced by Xstrata to access the mineral site. The photographer, in fact, was standing on the glacier to take the photograph.

This gross oversight shows just how little societies know about glaciers and the role they play in ecosystems. The Vatican recently published a report warning of glacier melt around the world due to climate change and anthropogenic causes. In the case of Filo Colorado and El Pachón, impacted glaciers are under rock showing no signs of ice or snow. Rock glaciers, as this type of glacier is called, are as critical (and even more important than ordinary white glaciers) to arid mountain regions like Catamarca and San Juan, providing year long water supply to rivers and streams in the vicinity. The rock layer on the surface of the glacier can be several meters thick, providing critical protection to ice reserves during warm and dry summer months. Xstrata has used this semantic difference to downplay the importance of rock glaciers, however new glacier legislation protects all types of glaciers, including rock glaciers and periglacial environments, as resources of public good.

CEDHA was unable to obtain Environmental Impact Studies for El Pachón from Xstrata, until pressure and a threat of legal action against the government of San Juan produced a 2008 geological survey map for El Pachón. This map, produced by the consulting firm URS for Xstrata Copper, revealed the presence of over 200 rock glaciers and 20% permafrost in El Pachón's vicinity. Both rock glaciers and permafrost are protected by provincial and federal glacier laws.

Xstrata, however, refuses to admit to the presence of any glaciers at either of the project sites, and in fact states publicly that there are no mining projects on any glaciers anywhere in the country. Xstrata's Manager for Argentine operations, Mr. Xavier Ochoa, is careful not to mention the word glacier in relation to Xstrata's projects. In a recent interview to local press, Ochoa suggests that we cannot talk of "glaciology" (referring to concerns of the impacts of mining on glaciers), but rather geocryology. Geo = rocks, cryology = glaciology, the two together, ... rock glaciers!

The growing glacier and mining feud in Argentina stems from public concerns over uncontrolled mining exploration which ensued in Argentina in the 1990s, with a State eager to bring in mining investment dollars, but not capable or interested in ensuring environmental protection. Mining companies like Xstrata, Barrick, Suramina, Gold Corp, TNR, and many others, are crisscrossing the Andes in search of precious metals, introducing roads indiscriminately through virgin mountain terrain, sometimes tearing right through glaciers. Barrick Gold was the precursor in the conflict, when it moved forward with preparations for the border project Pascua Lama. Barrick first denied the presence of glaciers at the project site, but after a lengthy battle with local groups and with the Chilean environmental authority, Barrick finaly accepted the presence of glaciers, then suggesting it could dynamite the glaciers and move them in dump trucks. That proposal of course, was scrapped.

In response to this irrationality of mining operations in glacier country, the Argentine Congress, unanimously passed a strict glacier protection law in 2008. The law went straight to the problem, expressly prohibiting mining anywhere near glaciers. Barrick was quick to respond however, and leveraged a presidential veto of the law by Argentine president Cristina Fernandez. Her Environment Secretary, Romina Picolotti (who founded CEDHA), resigned, and now leads the battle from CEDHA, to ensure full compliance of the nation's glacier law, which was reintroduced in 2010 after a lengthy and heated battle, and approved on a slim margin. Barrick has attacked the law in federal courts as unconstitutional and is awaiting a verdict from the Supreme Court.

If Xstrata's El Pachón project is to move forward as planned in 2013, the pit area will destroy rock glaciers and permafrost. Projected waste pile sites also include rock glaciers and permafrost zones. "Xstrata Copper's El Pachón project is in a very delicate situation. The project design predates the glacier law, but doesn't have its environmental permit approved yet. With the new law, this project is simply illegal", said Jorge Daniel Taillant, co-founder of CEDHA with Picolotti, and coordinator of CEDHA's Mining, Environment and Human Rights Program. "In order to move forward Xstrata would have to repair past damage, and substantially redesign the project. We don't see a way out for Xstrata in terms of the two projected pit areas, which both have glaciers and permafrost zones and are in violation of provincial and national laws".

"It's time we hold mining companies accountable to environmental law, and ensure that the benefits of mining (and not just the impacts) are going to communities", says Taillant, who has launched a "democratizing glaciers" initiative this past year, aiming to raise the awareness of glacier importance in local population and policy makers. "Mining companies profess to conduct "responsible mining", but in the end they play dirty hard ball politics. Barrick leveraged a presidential veto and recently bused workers down from the mine site so that they could vote for reforming the provincial constitution of San Juan and keep José Luis Gioja, an expressly pro-Barrick governor in office. Our sources say that Barrick offered its workers double pay that day if the referendum supported constitutional reform. It's pathetic!", states Taillant from his home office in Córdoba, a province that has recently outlawed open pit mining.

"We have one of the world's largest mining projects in Argentina (Barrick's Veladero which is soon to add Pascua Lama) and yet the first community you reach when leaving the mine, Tudcum, is one of the poorest towns in Argentina. The mining and development formula just doesn't add up! And on top of that, they're destroying our glacier reserves." Added Taillant.

The complaint filed by CEDHA in Australia points to the poor scientific quality of Xstrata's impact assessment as well as Xstrata's unwillingness to engage in a solution to its glacier impact problem. CEDHA calls on the Australian government to help sway the company to reason and engagement to repair damages to glaciers and avoid all future damage. CEDHA has also proposed the creation of an International Protocol for Mining Activity in Glacier Territory, along the lines of the Kimberly Principles for diamond mining.

Link to Complaint http://cedha.org.ar/contenidos/Specific%20Instance-xstrata%20copper%20-glaciers-%20June%201%20-%202011%20-%20final%20-%20english.pdf

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