MAC: Mines and Communities

Water contamination at Goldcorp mine in Siria Valley, Honduras

Published by MAC on 2010-01-25
Source: The Guardian, CAFOD

CAFOD and Development and Peace Canada discover evidence of severe water contamination at Goldcorp mine

2 December 2009

For immediate release

An investigation by aid agency CAFOD and Canada's Development and Peace has uncovered documents showing water contamination at a Honduras mine owned by multi-million dollar mining company Goldcorp.

The tests carried out by the Honduran authorities on water in the mine site which flows out into a local stream should have been acted on by the government and the company but instead the evidence of high acidity and metal concentrations were left undisclosed.

CAFOD and Development and Peace have handed the evidence of pollution by Goldcorp over to the Environmental Prosecutor in Honduras.

CAFOD's Extractives Policy Analyst Sonya Maldar said: "Despite Goldcorp's continual denial, this new information provides irrefutable evidence that the San Martin mine has caused pollution in Honduras. This is the latest in a long list of problems at the mine. Goldcorp must clean up its act so that the people of Siria Valley are not left with a toxic legacy when the company leaves Honduras at the end of the year."

Mining specialists from Newcastle University carried out an investigation into the design and implementation of Goldcorp's mine closure plan. The report produced by the Newcastle University team includes data --- previously undisclosed by the Honduran regulatory authorities - showing a severe incident of pollution in September 2008.

The report released today reveals acidity of the water at two sites reached levels of a pH between 2.5 and 3, which is typically very damaging to stream biology. (Distilled water has a pH of 7, vinegar 3 and lemon juice 2). As well as high levels of cadmium, copper and iron.

This is consistent with a complaint presented by a local community group, the Siria Valley Environmental Committee, to Honduras' Environmental Prosecutor about discolouration of the water flowing from streams originating from within the mine's perimeter on 24 September 2008. Community members reported that the water was a "reddish colour (...) and emanated a strong smell of sulphur". This indicates that contaminated water from the mine's perimeter had entered streams used by people in the Siria Valley for domestic and agricultural purposes.

The high levels of iron in the tested water sites as well as the low pH are symptoms of Acidic Mine Drainage (AMD), which is caused by the weathering of pyrite (a mineral composed of iron and sulphur). Deposits of pyrite are usually present as sulphide deposits in layers of rock beneath the earth's surface. When areas are mined these deposits are exposed to the air and they break down, releasing acidity into natural waters. Toxic metals associated with other minerals, such as copper and cadmium, dissolve readily in acidic waters, and if the resultant solution is released into waterways the effects on communities and wildlife can be devastating. However, AMD is managed effectively on many mine sites worldwide, including others operate by Goldcorp in other countries. There is no reason their Honduran operation should be managed to a lesser standard.

The Newcastle University report highlights that Goldcorp's mine closure plan lacks sufficient detail to allow an independent evaluation on the basis of the report alone. Some of the things Goldcorp have done on the site are actually better than their report would suggest, but other things are worse. For instance, the report did not properly take into consideration the high intensity of many rainstorms in Honduras, which can lead to flood and erosional risk on mine waste heaps and in ponds in which contaminated water is held. This means there can be a risk of contaminated water flowing into rivers and streams around the mine site, some of which feed drinking water sources for local communities. Although the company are now addressing earlier erosional problems, in the long term only sustained monitoring and maintenance can prevent such problems developing long after mine closure.

According to the communities living near the mine, these measures continue to be insufficient. Drainage channels constructed by Goldcorp to collect water from the mine's heap leach pads have overflowed on two occasions since their construction in May 2009, discharging water out towards the community road.

On inspection of the Siria Valley mine site in June this year, Dr Adam Jarvis and Dr Jaime Amezaga of Newcastle University saw unequivocal evidence that elevated concentrations of iron had flowed down the ravine from the Tajo Palo Alto open pit in the past. They saw that temporary measures were being taken by the mine staff to try to prevent future occurrences and that further measures were being proposed; despite this, Goldcorp's management still refused to admit that the site had ever caused water contamination. Without open disclosure of how serious the water contamination was, it is difficult for independent specialists to be sure that the remedial measures now proposed by the mine will be sufficient to protect the communities from long term environmental hazards.

International expert of mine water management, Professor Paul Younger, who carried out an initial review of Goldcorp's Mine Closure Plan and documented evidence of Acidic Mine Drainage during an earlier visit to the Siria Valley for CAFOD, said: "In spite of all the evidence of acidic mine drainage coming from the mine, the company denied live on national TV that they have caused pollution. This is not only exasperating; it does the company itself no favours. If Goldcorp were to be up-front about the problems they've encountered at the San Martin mine, it would be possible for independent observers to gain confidence that the steps they are taking to address them will really work. When all's said and done, there is no such thing as a "walk away" solution for mine sites, so the company must commit to long term monitoring of the site in order to prevent a reoccurrence of acidic mine drainage and erosion problems in the future. "

CAFOD, Development and Peace, Professor Paul Younger, Pedro Landa of Caritas Tegucigalpa and a member of the Siria Valley community will meet with Goldcorp at their offices in Toronto on 10 December 2009. We hope that during this meeting the company will address our concerns about its operations in the Siria Valley.


Gold giant faces Honduras inquiry into alleged heavy metal

Villagers and NGOs have accused Goldcorp of poisoning people and livestock by contaminating the Siria valley

Rory Carroll in Palo Ralo, Guardian 

31 December 2009

Authorities in Honduras are investigating claims that one of the world's biggest gold mining corporations has contaminated a valley with toxic heavy metals. Villagers and non-governmental organisations have accused Goldcorp of killing livestock and making people sick by polluting land and rivers in the Siria valley.

The environmental prosecutor is undertaking an investigation after being presented with evidence that the Canadian corporation's San Martin opencast mine discharged highly acidic and metal-rich water in 2008. The company has denied wrongdoing.

The inquiry comes at a critical time when record gold prices are encouraging other mining corporations to explore fresh sites in Honduras. Environmentalists fear the impoverished central American country will lift a moratorium on new mining after a new government takes office in January.

Goldcorp is shutting the decade-old San Martin mine after extracting nearly 12,000 tonnes of ore from its forested slopes. The dynamite explosions have stopped and there are no more ore-laden trucks rattling down rutted, dusty roads.

People in villages bordering the site say the damage is done and the fields and streams are poisoned. "The water tastes like acid, like something out of a car battery," said Roger Abraham, vice-president of the Siria Valley Environmental Committee, an activist group. "It would have been better if the mine never came. It has done more harm than good."

He said the damage to the valley would galvanise campaigns against other mines. "We will use peaceful, social actions to block access. We can't allow this to be repeated."

The community's complaints have been backed by two studies, commissioned by the UK-based advocacy group Cafod. The studies detected high acidity which could be linked to cyanide "heap-leaching" methods to extract gold from low-grade deposits. They describe how the process soaks piles of crushed gold ore in a cyanide solution which filters down, leaching out the precious metal from the rock but also releasing other toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. Without careful management it can contaminate streams and groundwater.

The first study, by Paul Younger, a Newcastle university hydro-geochemical engineering professor and expert on mine water management, detected acidic mine drainage, whereby sulphides in the rock are exposed to oxygen and water and produce sulphuric acid. Younger said this can have devastating effects on animals and plants.

A follow-up study by Adam Jarvis and Jaime Amezaga, also of Newcastle University, found evidence of "severe" contamination in the form of highly acidic and metal-rich water from the mine site flowing into a stream used by villagers for agriculture and domestic purposes. The data was in a previously undisclosed 2008 report by Defomin, Honduras's mining regulatory authority.

"This new information provides concrete evidence that the San Martin mine has caused pollution in Honduras," said Sonya Maldar of Cafod. "Goldcorp must clean up its act so that the people of Siria Valley are not left with a toxic legacy."

The enviromental prosecutor is reviewing the information and is expected to decide soon whether to prosecute. Goldcorp did not respond to interview requests for this article. But in previous public statements, the company denied wrongdoing and said its mining operation and clean-up met the highest international environmental standards and had been vetted by authorities. The company said Defomin reported in September 2008 that water flowing from Palo Alto pit had been treated to international standards.

"The presence of the mine has had no impact on the quantity or quality of the water in the areas of the San Martin mine," Goldcorp said in May last year. In a televised debate in November two senior managers said there was no problem with the discharge of acidic waters. Honduran authorities, the company said, took water samples during three visits in 2008 and all pH measurements were normal. They also reviewed and approved the mine closure plan.

A skeleton crew is now cleaning up the area. "As the site becomes rehabilitated, Goldcorp will cede the land to the San Martin Foundation for commercial agricultural projects," said the company's website.

The mine is visible from miles away: an orange-coloured gash from which vegetation and clay have been stripped from the hillside, an incongruous sight in a landscape of meadows and sun-crinkled villagers on horse-back.

A Nevada-based company, Glamis Gold, started mining in 2000 after relocating the village of Palo Ralo. Entre Mares, a Honduran subsidiary owned by Goldcorp, took over the concession in 2005.

Initally the project had local support. As a rural backwater in the western hemisphere's third poorest country the prospect of good jobs and new houses was welcome, said Rudolfo Arteaga, a Palo Ralo farmer and community activist. Brick homes were an improvement on adobe and 400 people got temporary work - but the price was too high, he said.

Of 18 riverbeds, 15 were now parched, the alleged result of the mine using up to 220 gallons a minute during operations, according to Cafod. Crops had withered and, while drought currently afflicts much of central America, Siria's troubles, said Arteaga, arrived with the mine.

Water was not only scarce, it was contaminated, he said. Cattle had died - this year 24 carcasses were found on grazing land near the mine - and people suffered respiratory, skin and gastro-intestinal diseases.

Woods had been felled, leaving the area vulnerable to mudslides during tropical storms. Goldcorp had planted thousands of trees but often used alien species such as eucalyptus, Arteaga said, which sucked up more water.

Concern about environmental damage in Honduras prompted a moratorium on new mining in 2004 but the ban may not survive a political crisis which has left Honduras broke, starved of investment and short of economic options.

Campaigners fear Honduras's new government, which is due to be sworn in on 27 January, will bow to pressure from the national assembly and mining corporations to permit new explorations.

"In this climate it's difficult to be optimistic," said Pedro Landa, executive director of campaign group Caritas in Tegucigalpa. "There is a lot of pressure for mining to resume."

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