MAC: Mines and Communities

Call for Cyanide Ban in Patagonia

Published by MAC on 2003-02-09

Call for Cyanide Ban in Patagonia

Buenos Aires Herald, by Bonnie Tucker

February 9 2003

Opponents of a gold mining project in Esquel yesterday celebrated a small victory in their ongoing battle with their mayor and the governor of Chubut, who back the undertaking despite its environmental and life quality implications for local residents.

On Thursday, the Esquel City Council passed ordinances that ban the use and transport of cyanide within city limits, revoke the city ordinance accepting national laws on mining investment, and call for a popular referendum on the mine to be held by March 23 at latest, six days before the oft-postponed public hearing on the issue is scheduled to take place.

The mining project was not originally on the eight councillors' agenda, but it appeared when 1,500 irate residents told them that if they didn't address the issue, they wouldn't leave until they had all resigned.

"Compared to the situation a few months ago, when the majority in the Council was in favour of the mine, this is a big little victory," said Lino Pizzolón, a limnologist who works for the Water Ecology Lab of the University of Patagonia in Esquel.

The Water War

The conflict with the El Desquite mining company - which belongs to Meridian Gold, a Canadian multinational based in the United States - is basically over the water supply of this city (pop. 30,000) and surrounding farms. The fate of the region's environment, including the nearby national park that draws tourists, is not yet a leading issue.

The company wants to strip-mine gold at the top of the southern end of Esquel range a little over 6 km from the city, the airport and the La Hoya ski resort (see map). It wants to use cyanide to separate the ore from the rock. The cyanide would be stored in pools atop the range, as would the polluted waste rock in a dump (escombrera). It is believed that Lake Esquel would be used as a tailings dam for liquid wastes flowing down two streams from the mine site - another potential source of aquifer pollution.

The main technical problem is that the Esquel range is a watershed that is riddled with faults and fissures, and full of water; springs gush out of it at all levels, flowing down the mountainside to form streams and lakes and, in some cases, rivers that flow into the Atlantic and Pacific.

The residents' existential problem is that they get their drinking water from an aquifer and little Lake Willimanco at the foot of the Esquel range; this reservoir lake is fed by both surface and ground water. During the dry summer months water is scarce, and during drought years even scarcer. Farms also rely on streams that flow down from the range., the only Esquel Website listed in the province's official Website directory, is giving a blow-by-blow account of the water war against the mine. One of its documents is the Berlin Declaration on Gold Mining Using Cyanide Process, which reports eight major transport accidents and ruptures or leakages of cyanide dams that took place between 1993 and 2000 in the United States, South Africa, the Philippines, Guayana, Kirghistan and Romania.

When the mining company applied to the province for a permit to use public water in its Esquel operation, the local 16 de Octubre cooperative that runs the city's public services contracted Fernando Máximo Díaz, a Buenos Aires-based geologist specialized in water movements through geological formations, to determine whether the project could affect drinking water.

Using existing bibliography, the preliminary and environmental impact studies prepared by professionals contracted by the mining company, and his own observations, Díaz said that one third of the aquifer to be used by the mine corresponds to the most water-rich part of the Willimanco basin, and when the dam winds up its operation nine years from now, the water that is no longer pumped into Lake Esquel will flow back into the reservoir lake, carrying heavy metals and other pollutants (the so-called "acid drainage"). Hence, he insisted that mine water be pumped away from this reservoir forever following mine closure.

Díaz also said that the explosions of the mine could reinitiate the faulting process in the 20-km-long mountain range and open up new fissures interconnecting ground water sources.

As a result of his findings, dam opponents have demanded that proper hydrogeological studies be made in and around the range to prove that this possibility is indeed remote before the mining project is approved. The provincial Water Resources Board said the cooperative (i.e. the potential victims of the mining project) will have to pay the cost of such studies.

Díaz told the Herald that the company's studies "neither contemplated nor evaluated" such matters as possible acid drainage into the reservoir after mine closure or a possible hydrogeological connection between lakes Willimanco and Esquel. "Their study covered only the southern end of the Esquel range where they want to operate," he said. "They didn't study the fault systems in that range and the adjoining Leleque range." Such a study could reveal if the mining explosions could possibly trigger avalanches in the ski resort or open water-bearing fissures capable of transporting pollution to outlying farms or the rivers and lakes of the Los Alerces National Park 50 km away.

The "siege" of the City Council was the high point of an effervescent Thursday that included a demonstration of 3,000 people in front of the mining company's offices and the newspaper El Oeste which backs the mining project. The protestors later paraded through the city streets until midnight.

A similar anti-mine demonstration earlier this month included city councillors of the Catamarca town of Andalgalá who are worried about the acid drainage that they say is already taking place in the basin where Bajo de la Alumbrera, an open pit gold mine similar to the one Esquel might have on its doorstep, has been operating for several years.

The mayor has vowed to veto any move toward a referendum, saying it is necessary to "create jobs." But the mining company has not promised to contract local workers. So the national and provincial governments will be footing the bill for their training so they will be taken into account.

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