MAC: Mines and Communities

Pure Dynamite

Published by MAC on 2005-07-15

Pure Dynamite

by Javier Rodríguez Pardo, San Juan, Argentina

July 2005

The more we learn about Veladero and Pascua Lama mining operations, the more stupifying is the magnitude of the impact and the impossibility of repair. Veladero is just one among hundreds of mining operations waiting in line. It is difficult to imagine the activity of countless multinational megamining operations, in thousands of open-pit operations, using lethal chemical compounds to extract low-grade ore. To really grasp the impact, one has to hear the protagonists, and their terrible stories of mountains laid to rubble, moved, buried in unimaginable craters, draining toxic runoff towards inhabited valleys, foretelling the death of a mountain range.

Many of the workers at Veladero don't hide their astonishment at what is happening, and with this in mind, I began an interview with José González, 23 years, married with one child, and ex-employee of Cartellone S.A., the firm which constructed the mammoth tailings reservoir of Veladero for the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold Corp. in San Juan, at an altitude of over 15,000 feet in the Andes.

González doesn't hesitate: "What really caught my attention was the tremendous movement of earth. In ten or fifteen days entire mountains would be disappeared, moved from one place to another, converted into a soul-less rubble which would reappear somewhere else. I don't work anymore at Veladero, but I can't stop thinking that the destruction continues. The demolition doesn't stop."

What did you do at Veladero?

Topografical work. I plotted the locations where the company Dyno Nobel, who were in charge of explosives, was to dynamite. In little more than a week, I would show them where to place the charges for the explosions. I worked twenty days with ten days off. When I would return, various mountain peaks would be gone. This really shook me. What also moved me was the amount of mountain ranges we were impacting every day. On finishing my duty, half, or even all of a mountain just didn't exist anymore. The place wasn't the same, it was unrecognizable.

You hadn't imagined this would happen when you took the job?

Not all of this. The destruction, the movement of earth, the speed at which they tore down mountains and the rubble piles we left, it all forms a part of you when you are working, and then afterwards, alone, we think of what we had done.

It is striking to hear you talk, because you are blaming yourself.

For the type of work that I do, it shouldn't bother me, but to see an entire mountain disappear is a really ugly sensation, strange and awful. The company Cartellone paid for my studies in order to apply the knowlege that I aquired in Yaciretá. From there I left preparing for hard work in Veladero. My goal was to better my life with good earnings. But now I regret having taken the work. It isn't worth what I lived, not what I feel. I contributed to the destruction of the Andes and I'm aware of that, despite knowing that if it weren't me, someone else would have done it. And it was for money that I accepted the sacrifice, left my family, my son, risked my life.

You risked your life?

Constantly. Accidents are common at Veladero, and many of them because of negligence on the part of the company. To work in the digging of the tailings reservoir is very dangerous. There are systems of terraces and sometimes we crosssed these dangerous layers when they are frozen, to mark some point, correct a camber. In the dam, the risk of slipping and ending up on the bottom of the pit is great, because we worked without harnesses, a protection which was always lacking, and which we were demanding. At an altitude of 15,000 feet one gets dizzy because of the pressure, or because after two in the afternoon you get much more tired, lacking oxygen, your head hurts, your legs get heavy. Some folks start forgetting things, they don't remember what they are doing.

But for those risks, they should pay you well, like the film "The Wages of Fear" which comes to mind.

You never know -- the basic pay of a topographer is 1,500 pesos (less than $500 dollars) working for Cartellone. If you were working directly for Barrick, you would make at least 80% more. The difference is that you are a contracted worker. They didn't pay us extra for risk nor for the work in high altitudes, nor did they compensate for the solitude far from our families, much less the cold, 17 and 25 degrees below zero, the incessant winds.

In the Environmental Impact Report, Barrick says they will dynamite 36,000 tons of rocks daily for 17 in Veladero alone, but we know that is is much more.

For this I recognize the damage that I have done. The incredible movement of earth, destroying the mountains, the amounts that Barrick wants to pulverize, it's just a process of extraction. Our work came before the actual exploitation. We didn't see the disaster that came because we didn't want to see it; perhaps because we needed and wanted the pay almost desperately, and others, they knew, but later when they returned down to the towns, you think on other things. We ask ourselves what would happen if everyone would see what we are doing, the magnitude of the destruction, the damage. We think in all the water we use, which will inevitably become contaminated, but when you are alone up there, you work and you act. And you try to do it so they recognize your work so the next month you can return and work and get paid. A better salary than I have now, that's certain, but this, I wouldn't change it; now I am with my people, without risk, without the excesses and without worrying that what happened to my cousin could happen to me.

What happened to your cousin?

Not everybody is able to cope with the rhythm and conditions. Altitude sickness appears without warning and really strong, even if you are very strong and have passed all the medical checks, you work a little excessively and your heart can stop or you burst a lung. A short time after arriving, a cousin of mine had a pulmonary edema. Put bluntly, he burst a lung.

What is your cousins' name?

Jorge Manrique. He worked in Veladero. Now he has one less lung and with this he'll carry out his days. He had a pulmonary edema because he was laboring so much to breathe for the lack of oxygen, and not all people, organisms can tolerate the altitude, the pressure, the physical excesses. In my case i worked out a lot up there, and when I returned to the town, I came down full of energy, light, without tiring. Up there you have to know how to walk, you have to learn how to breath. And you shouldn't cause problems...

Did you see any fatalities in Veladero? Deaths of co-workers?

No. Me, no, I didn't have those experiences directly, but other co-workers told us of folks who they had to transport down urgently, and we never saw them again. We knew that some, suddenly, just up and died. This was always covered up.

Aside from the dynamiting, what other things affected you about Veladero?

The plastic membrane we put in the tailings dam to contain the acid drainage and the soil contamination. The Chileans did this job. We did the controls to make sure it was laid down in perfect conditions and with the correct thickness. Unfortunately, the membrane broke when it was laid down and they soldered five patches every hundred meters, a patch every twenty meters of membrane; it broke because of the rocks, when we extended it, depending on the type of soil or the walls of the dam. None of us trusted those patches, but we all shut up. The company says this is the only way to lay the tailings foundations, and that some repairs and soldering are inevitable. They always have an answer, and it is better to not question them if you want to keep your job.

The amount of dust that we produced in the explosions also struck me. There were days which were a thick fog of wind and dust. Time will tell what will be the effect on the people in the valleys, on the animals and plants. At first there were guanacos (llamas), foxes, hares, eagles; now they have disappeared, escaping from the swarms of trucks, giant bulldozers, the movement of people and vehicles.

When I began work, they were removing ore from the mountains Amable and Filo Federico, by then they had already destroyed 50% of the vega (oasis spring) near the plant, where they do the lixiviation of the minerals. This vega will disappear completely, and will never be the same.

How was the destrucion of the glacier Conconta?

I don't know how they did that because when I began to work, the road that cut through the glacier already was in place, as wide as the road is now. If there was a glacier there, it doesn't exist now.

What would you like to add or say to the Argentines and Chileans who read this?

That I regret having participated in this disaster, because I love the Andes, I like the mountains, and the job I did will never justify the damage that I committed. For this I am regretful, to have
contributed such damage for money. I did it because I needed the money, and what is worse, is that it didn't resolve my problems, I still don't have enough money.

Written by Javier Rodríguez Pardo

San Juan, July 2005

Translation by David Modersbach

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