MAC: Mines and Communities

Uranium? No Thanks, Says San Rafael

Published by MAC on 2006-07-15

Uranium? No Thanks, Says San Rafael

by MAC LAtin America Editor, Luis Claps, Mendoza

July 2006

The uranium mines of Sierra Pintada are located at the river headwaters of San Rafael, Mendoza, and they stretch across the river El Tigre, which empties into the river Diamante, the principal source of water for the city and local districts. All the agricultural and livestock activity of this region is dependent on this water system, which is born and recharged in the high peaks of the Andes.

The production of grapes, fruit, livestock and agribusinesses (dried fruit, conserves) occupies more than 80 percent of the labor force of the Department, some 30,000 jobs. At the same time, tourism is the fastest growing activity over the past 10 years. The planned reopening of the uranium mining complex, according to the residents of San Rafael, puts the future of these economic and social activities at risk, as well as the environment in which they live.

The experiences of resistance against mining projects are numerous and diverse, throughout this strip of the west of Argentina. Each community has taken on the problem in its own creative manner, in solidarity with the others. They share much in common with Esquel, Santa María or Ingeniero Jacobacci, but also are different. In the case of San Rafael there are two aspects, at least, characterizing the social movements opposed to the mining operations: The struggle is not against a foreign multinational corporation but rather against an organ of the Argentinianstate, (the National Commission of Atomic Energy – CNEA). Additionally, the objective is to prevent the reopening of a mining operation which has already operated for many years in the area, for which the involved organizations are also seeking mitigation of damages already caused by the mining operations.

The Sierra Pintata mining complex occupies 2000 hectares, some 50 kilometers from the city of San Rafael and 20 km from the town of Villa 25 de Mayo. It opened in the 1970's, and the plant began functioning in 1979. Operations were expanded in 1986 from 60 to 120 tonnes of uranium. In 1995, due to unfavorable international economic conditions, mining was halted. But there are still reserves proven to last for at least 15 years of extraction at 120 tonnes per year. And, in the face of a peak in the international price of uranium and the intention of the Argentine government to construct another nuclear reactor, ATUCHA II, the business of uranium has once again become attractive. - Not so for the denizens of San Rafael, who point to the thousands of tonnes of solid waste which are currently stashed away in 5,340 drums; the 1.7 million tones of radioactive tailings currently abandoned at the site; and the 1.2 million cubic meters of contaminated water in the tailings tams and evaporation reservoirs. Uranium? No thank you, they say: a response to those who promote the business of radioactivity.

To Live with Uncertainty

Virginia and Alejandro arrived in San Rafael four years ago, and set up a small farm outside of town. They produce organic artisan wines, an activity which is growing in the area, since the wine is of excellent quality and requires no agrichemicals nor additives. In the last year they produced some 4,000 liters, which they sell in Mendoza and Buenos Aires. But every Saturday they set up a table in the town center square, to inform their neighbors about the risks involved in the exploitation of uranium. They gather signatures of other people opposed to the re-start of mining in Sierra Pintada. and have already collected several thousand. "The most difficult thing is to live with the uncertainty, of not knowing what will happen", Virginia told me. "We don't want to have to leave, we want to stay and fight," adds Alejandro.

To Live with the CNEA

The National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA) is probably the Argentine organism with the worst track record of all in terms of the environment. According to the Association Against the Pollution in Esteban Etcheverría, there is a radius of 2,500 hectares of waters contaminated with uranium around the center of Ezeiza, Esteban Echeverría and La Matanza in the Province of Buenos Aires, affecting a million persons. This is the location of the CNEA nuclear power plant Ezeiza. Last year, a judge ordered an analysis of the waters of the area which was carried out by geologist Fernando Máximo Díaz. A copy of this 600-page analysis was anonymously left on the doorstep of the environment organization of Esteban Echeverría. This is how the local residents found out about the Díaz's finding that 74% of the 46 wells analyzed contained water unfit for human consumption, with concentrations of 50 to 80 micrograms per liter. Two other radioactive elements, radon and strontium, were also detected.

But the most irrational and most resisted project of CNEA is the nuclear dump site of Gastre, in the Province of Chubut, where Argentina has proposed to import nuclear waste from all over the world. This gave birth to the Antinuclear Movement of Chubut (MACH). Now, twenty years later, through a long struggle, the import of radioactive materials is prohibited by the National Constitution. To folks of the Multisectorial of the South this history is proof that "the CNEA is totally irresponsible." Furthermore, they claim that "there is a demonstrated incapacity of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority to control the CNEA."

Last year, the provincial legislature of Mendoza approved the reopening of the mine, with a condition: A special commission should be created to examine the demand that, before further mining could start, CNEA had first to remediate the damages already caused. After some weeks, the CNEA presented a remediation plan which accounted for only 10% of the total wastes present. It seems that this plan is no more than a strategy to buy the reopening of the mine - not a serious and integrated restoration project. For its part, the Multisectorial of the South carried out a massive march against the reopening of the mines on June 2, has initiated several legal actions, and continues to inform and hold discussions face-to-face with the community. For a people with such a deep relationship with the mountains and its water (the Irrigation Codes of Mendoza are more than 100 years old), it isn't difficult for folk to decide in which direction to put their feet forward to find the best future possible.

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