MAC: Mines and Communities

Court Stops Northern Gold Mine

Published by MAC on 2004-12-10

Court Stops Northern Gold Mine

By Katherine Stanley and Kim Beecheno, Tico Times Staff

December 10 2004

Costa Rica - The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) on Wednesday announced it has annulled a mining concession in Las Crucitas, a town the Northern Zone near the Nicaraguan border, eliciting relief from environmentalists and opponents to the controversial gold mine.

In 2001, then-President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez and the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) granted a concession to the mining company Industrias Infinito S.A., the Costa Rican subsidiary of the Canadian firm Vannessa Ventures.

According to the Sala IV ruling, the concession violates Article 50 of the Constitution, which guarantees every person's right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.

"We're astonished and perplexed by this ruling, given that the Sala IV previously rejected the same appeal," Industrias Infinito General Manager Jesús Carvajal told The Tico Times yesterday. "We don't know the reasons behind the ruling."

Carvajal said it is too early to tell if his company, which he said has invested $35 million in the project to date, would pursue further legal action. "While our company is the party affected by the ruling, the appeal was actually filed against MINAE, not us," he said.

"We hope the ministry will ask the Sala IV to review the decision," he added.

THE ruling was prompted by a case filed in April 2002 by Carlos and Diana Murillo, members of the Front of Opposition to Northern-Zone Mining.

Concession contracts for both Industrias Infinito and Río Minerales S.A., a company set to begin another controversial gold mine in Miramar , in the hills above the Pacific port town of Puntarenas , were both awarded before President Abel Pacheco signed a moratorium on open-pit mining in June 2002, just after he took office (TT, June 7, 2002 ).

Although opponents of the mining projects argued the concessions should be revoked, the Sala IV sided with In-dustrias Infinito in a 2002 ruling, upholding the concession because it was approved before the moratorium (TT, Oct. 25, 2002 ).

An article in the San José daily La Prensa Libre earlier this year, picked up by Nicaraguan journalists, caused panic in this neighboring country over the potential environmental impact of the proposed mine, as it would sit five kilometers south of the San Juan River, part of which forms the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua (TT, Sept. 3).

Officials in Nicaragua created a commission to study the controversial project after Nicaraguan environmentalists warned that the mine could have a possibly devastating effect on the San Juan River , used for fishing by hundreds of Nicaraguan southern-zone residents.

Nicaragua 's environmental lawyer, Lisandro D'Leon, warned that if it was determined the mining project would cause irreparable harm to Nicaragua 's environment, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry would employ various international treaties and conventions to halt it.

The Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) had rejected the environmental-impact study presented by Industrias Infinito in 2003, but the Sala IV ordered SETENA to re-evaluate the project because of a series of procedural oversights.

After a public hearing on the gold mine in July of this year (TT, July 23) SETENA said it was still reviewing information gathered and had not reached a decision on the environmental-impact study of the project when the Sala IV made its ruling this week.

One of the primary concerns of environmentalists and residents is the fact the company would use cyanide to extract gold from the ore at the site. Earlier this year, Carvajal said the company would be using tanks for this process to prevent the cyanide from making contact with the environment. Later it would be destroyed in a process called Inco-SO2/Air, where the cyanide is broken down into 28 elements. The mining company hoped to extract more than 650,000 ounces of gold during the next eight years in operation, according to Carvajal.

A statement from Industrias Infinito yesterday said the company had complied with all legal procedures to operate in Costa Rica .

"The only possible explanation is that this is an error or misinterpretation of the actual state of the concession, which was awarded under the rules and regulations of 2001," the statement said.

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