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Accident at Barrick Gold’s Veladero Mine Contaminates the Rio Jachal River Basin
A disaster that was waiting to happen
By Romina Picolotti
President of The Center of Human Rights and Environment (CHRE)
*Photo: El Inversor Energetico y Minero
Sept 22, 2015
Las Sunday Barrick Gold uncontrollably spilled 224,000 liters of cyanide leach for nearly 2 hours to the Rio Jachal river basin. Today, residents of towns such as Jachal, Iglesias, and other communities downstream from one of Barrick’s flagship projects, Veladero, must buy bottled water and refrain from consuming any water from the public water grid. Water consumption in the high Andes of the Argentine province of San Juan is no longer safe.
In 2005, the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CHRE), published a report on the environmental impacts of largescale mining operations in Argentina. CHRE’s Patagonia office began to engage with local communities to advert on the arrival of mining operations aiming to extract precious metals such as gold and silver, from extremely sensitive ecological environments. Flexible mining promotion laws and poor regulatory controls over mining were allowing very dubious and unsustainable mining ventures to go forward unabated.
We advised at the time that it was important to modify the mining law, which promoted mining investments but provided little in the way for environmental and social impact controls over the activity. The mining laws in force at the time also ignored community concerns over likely impacts of large scale mining. We also denounced the excessive privileges granted to large corporations, which were not afforded to smaller local companies.
In 2006 when I took office as Argentina’s federal Environment Secretary, I created the Unit for the Control of Mining Operations, at the heart of the Environment Secretary’s Compliance and Enforcement Team. We worked to bring changes to the mining law, to increase environmental oversight of mining operations, since all environmental and social mining oversight was entrusted to Mining Authorities, that is, ironically to the same agencies that promote mining.
As was to be expected, each proposal to modify mining regulations to end mining company impunity for social and environmental impacts, met with enormous resistance. I had to hire a seasoned and relentless international human rights advocate accustomed to working the front lines in dangerous places like Cambodia and Bosnia, to face the sorts of personal pressures and threats leveled at our team because we were confronting the mining sector. When we tried to intervene at Veladero to inspect alleged impacts to glaciers, the highest national environmental authority could not enter the mine. It was also about that time that me and my staff at the Environment Secretariat began to receive anonymous death threats to ourselves and our families.
In mid 2006, not long after taking office, 80 residents of the Province of San Juan, where Barrick has its operations including Pascua Lama and Veladero (and now a stake in Del Carmen), came to the federal capital asking for the intervention of the Environment Secretariat. They claimed Barrick Gold was dynamiting glaciers and periglacial environments to get at gold. It was after this meeting with local sanjuaninos that we began to work to get a National Glacier Law adopted to protect glacier and periglacial resources. These icy resources in the high mountain environments of the Andes work like massive ecological sponges that retain water and provide it to our ecosystems when the environment needs it most, during dry months or especially long dry spells.
Most of the Andean rivers, and also rivers in other mountainous ranges such as the Aconquija (Catamarca Province) or Famatina (La Rioja Province), depend on glaciers and periglacial environments to supply rivers and lakes with water. The economies of these lands depend on glaciers and periglacial areas as a hydrological lifeline.
And so the from the Environment Secretariat we began to work directly on the promotion of a bill in the National Congress to protect glacier and periglacial resources and to ban mining in these sensitive ecological areas. This law would protect frozen hydrological resources in mountain environments, and would provide a national census of all glaciers, rock glaciers (subsurface glaciers) and permafrost regions. It would also give the Environment Secretariat jurisdiction over mining operations in glacier regions, something the mining authorities and the mining industry would surely oppose, particularly in provinces such as San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca and others where mining was being given free reigns to move forward with ecologically questionable projects in glacier areas.
Projects such s Pascua Lama, Veladero (both by Barrick Gold, the same company that just spewed over 200,000 liters of cyanide-laced contamination into extremely sensitive Andean river basins), El Pachon (Glencore Xstrata), Los Azules (McEwen Mining), Las Flechas (NGX Resources), Altar (Stillwater), Del Carmen (now also with a Barrick Gold stake investment), Cerro Amarillo (Meryllion Resources) and many others, some in exploration and some ready to begin extraction, would be deemed illegal and would have to cease all activity until they could be analyzed with the Glacier Protection Law in force. Of course, Barrick Gold immediately attacked the law, and filed a law suit to have it ruled unconstitutional. They claimed that Veladero and Pascua Lama were not in glacier areas, but ironically and conversely, they filed a law suit claiming that the Glacier Protection Law would affect their already acquired mining permits for these projects–so why would Barrick file a lawsuit against the Glacier Law if their projects weren’t in glacier areas or their projects were not in violation of the law? Barrick got a record verdict in their favor from a local federal judge, in under 23 hours, the Glacier Law was suspended for Barrick. A year later however, the Supreme Court slapped the judge on the hand and reversed the ruling, and the Glacier Law, again, stands in full force.
I resigned as Argentina’s Environment Secretary in late 2008, following the President’s veto of the glacier law, spurred on by the mining industry’s plea that the president veto the law or face collapsing mining investments. Knowing that the National Glacier Inventory would be stalled by the mining sector (which indeed has occurred, it is already legally past due), CEDHA began to conduct its own glacier inventories, registering over 3,000 glaciers, and we mapped these with mining operations, showing undeniable and very dangerous overlap between mining operations and frozen grounds, glaciers, rock glaciers and periglacial environments. Local authorities in San Juan and La Rioja denied our claims, suggesting there are no glaciers or periglacial environments affected by mining.
We shared our findings with the public and more specifically with local communities resisting the unmonitored and irresponsible advancement of mining into glacier regions. We denounced the brutal repression by police forces against peaceful community representatives who marched to government agencies calling for the application of the glacier law and an end to irresponsible mining. We defended these social movements against the mega miners in glacier areas because simply, water is more important than gold.
Today, San Juan Province is in an environmental emergency. Today, Barrick Gold has fired 15 of its highest officers at Veladero as over 200,000 liters of poisonous cyanide-laced residue has spilled into the sensitive highland basins, placing all downstream communities at risk.
We were told by Barrick, by Xstrata Copper (now Glencore Xstrata) and by mining authorities that projects like Veladero and La Alumbrera would bring economic progress, but they’ve been milking the mountains for gold, silver and copper and little or no progress is visible in some of the projects’ closest communities such as Tudcum or Andalgala. Poor or nonexistent public services, poor roads, no water, no sewers, highly undersupplied medial facilities, and the list goes on. Poverty is growing and so are the accounts of mining corporate executives in foreign bank accounts. Where is the promised economic development of mining? What we do have is contamination, environmental impacts, and risks to human health that were not present before these mining operations arrived. What mining has brought is the need for residents of Jachal and Iglesias in San Juan Province to have to buy bottled water because their local water supply is no longer safe.
We were told that mining was not taking place in glacier and periglacial areas, but satellite images easily visible on Google Earth … (for example, go to the following Google Address — 29°19’18.98″ S 70°00’56.39″ W — to see how Barrick’s Pascua Lama project is surrounded by sensitive mountain glaciers and digs out permafrost in sensitive frozen mountain areas). Barrick alone has over 400 glaciers, rock glaciers and other legally protected ice patches (glacierets) in their zone of impact. The company admits to seven. The mining authorities of San Juan will not publish its glacier inventory and the national authorities, which are long overdue with national glacier inventories and glacier impact studies for mining operations, remain silent.
We were told that these projects were run by “responsible mining”, but large corporations elude environmental controls and refuse to provide information about project impacts. We were told that mining was safe and that there was no risk to the environment or to people, but today, the Rio Jachal river basin is contaminated by Barrick’s Veladero project and residents need to buy bottled water because their local water is no longer safe.
We’ve tired of claiming our right to know, now we simply want the law to be applied and enforced.
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