MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Chile's Environmental Commission Opposed Glacier Removal Plan

Published by MAC on 2005-06-01


Chile's Environmental Commission Opposed Glacier Removal Plan - Barrick Gold Forced To Re-Think Mining Project

By Emily Byrne, EL MERCURIO, LA NACIÓN

June 1, 2005

Region III's Environmental Commission (COREMA) asked Canadian mining firm Barrick Gold not to relocate three glaciers in the Andes Mountains that are covering 17.6 million oz. of rich gold and silver deposits.

COREMA presented a report to Barrick that detailed suggestions to mitigate environmental damage from the Pascua Lama mining project. Barrick originally planned to create an open-pit mine, which would require parts of the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers to be removed.

The COREMA report urged the mining firm to reconsider their method of extracting the gold and silver deposits. The environmental authority suggests that Barrick "create a smaller pit mine, which would not affect the glaciers." Another solution proposed in the report is to alter the project altogether, creating a "noninvasive" underground mine, which would lie just below the glaciers.

COREMA Director Osvaldo Ávila said the government hopes Barrick will consider the proposal.

"We believe it's an adequate alternative to the project that (will also ensure) the protection of the environment," Ávila said.

Ávila highlighted that Barrick also needs to do further studies on the area' s water supplies and how they would be affected by the removal of three large glaciers.

Barrick's original plan was to transfer 300,000 cubic meters of ice with a 20-hectare surface area from the glaciers that surround the deposits.

To mitigate ecological impact and prevent ice from melting, Barrick hopes to transfer the three glaciers to an area with similar surface characteristics and elevation by merging the three into a larger glacier, Guanaco.

The COREMA report also says that Barrick Gold has failed to adequately investigate the possibility that the mine would pollute rivers at their mountain source, which would affect the water supply in the Huasco Valley.

COREMA says there is "inconsistencyin the figures Barrick has presented (on the subject)," and that the company currently has no means to evaluate the environmental impact of the Pascua Lama project, or explore ways to alleviate the potential damage.

Farmers in Region III protested the Pascua Lama gold mine because they fear the water supply they rely on for irrigation will become contaminated.

Huasco Valley agricultural and community associations expressed their concerns in a letter to President Ricardo Lagos earlier this year.

They said that the two main river basins that provide water to the valley's community relies on glacial runoff, and that the Barrick Gold project threatens the ecosystem, agriculture and water quality of the valley.

But Barrick Gold said the waters will undergo a cleaning procedure and will arrive purified in the San Félix Valley, where many farmers own land.

The company also tried to curry favor with the Huasco Valley inhabitants. Barrick Gold announced last month that it would create a special US$10 million fund to promote sustainable development in the valley areas threatened by the development of its Pascua Lama project.

The fund will co-finance health, education, training, infrastructure and culture conservation projects.

The COREMA report also raised concerns about the domestic waste that the camp of 1,500 workers planned at the mine site would create.

"In a visit, the bad state of the sanitary system made us realize the difficulties the company would have to manage the mine as well (as the camp)," the report says.

COREMA's proposal is a small victory for protesters who have voiced their fierce objection to the project from its outset.

Greenpeace and the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OCLA) recently protested against the project at Barrick Gold's offices in Santiago. Protesters threw ice and snow to draw attention to alleged future damage to ecosystems that would result from the glacial ice transfer.

Nongovernmental organizations in England and Spain have also criticized Barrick Gold's plans.

The Pascua Lama project, straddled on the border between Chile and Argentina, seeks to extract gold, silver and copper starting in 2009. It is one of the largest foreign investments in Chile in recent years, totaling US$1.5 billion.

Barrick spokesman Rodrigo Rivas said the company is being aided by experts from the Valdivia Center for Scientific Studies, and that other similar projects have been developed successfully in Russia, Sweden and the Antarctica.

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