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October 2, 2015. As local communities in San Juan Argentina began to denounce contamination and glacier impacts at Barrick’s Veladero mine in the high Central Andes, Romina Picolotti, human rights activist and Environment Secretary of Argentina from 2006 to 2008, tried to enter Barrick’s mine in 2007. However, shielded by public officials of the Argentine Province of San Juan, Barrick Gold resisted Picolotti’s environmental law enforcement efforts and her environmental compliance team was barred entry into the mining project.
Picolotti’s attempts to hold Barrick Gold accountable to environmental law were slowed but not thwarted. Through her leverage as Secretary of Environment and through the NGO she founded a decade earlier, she continued to search for pathways to control irresponsible mining in Argentina, an effort that would result in strong reprisals against her, both during and after her tenure as Environment Secretary.
After resigning as head of Argentina’s highest environmental authority in late 2008, Picolotti returned to head the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), a non-profit environmental advocacy group focused on mining impacts to people and the environment. Barrick Gold’s mining investments in Argentina were squarely on CEDHA’s radar screen for alleged impacts to hydrological and glacier resources. In 2011, CEDHA published a report using Barrick’s own data, showing that Barrick Gold was spewing heavy metals into San Juan’s delicate waterways, including Lead, Aluminum, Arsenic and Mercury. The provincial authorities of San Juan said the report was “not serious” while Barrick Gold ironically questioned “the source of the information” which was none other than the company itself. Barrick Gold also threatened CEDHA with a lawsuit for tarnishing its good name. Later that year, CEDHA published a new report revealing a massive landslide at Veladero caused by Barrick Gold’s ill–decision to place heavy rock piles on delicate and unstable permafrost terrain. A landslide the size of a small town collapsed downslope in 2008 for nearly 1/2 a mile. Barrick Gold had kept the landslide from authorities until Google Earth images revealed the folly.
That same year, CEDHA filed a complaint to the US Export Import Bank and to Export Development Canada, calling on the public export credit agencies to not finance Barrick, since its new flagship project, Pascua Lama, was in violation of Argentina’s glacier protection law as well as in conflict with national laws protecting ecological reserves in the high Andes mountains such as the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve, a protected UNESCO site. Three months later, and with additional pressure from other advocacy groups in both Chile and Argentina, the USEXIM Bank and EDC financing collapsed and Barrick could not get Pascua Lama off the ground. The project remains stalled today due to unresolved environmental problems.
In 2013 CEDHA published yet another report revealing Barrick’s contamination to glaciers at both Veladero and Pascua Lama. CEDHA revealed that Barrick Gold’s zone of impact for the projects included 400 glaciers or other legally protected perennial ice resources, while Barrick Gold officially claims they have only “7” glaciers in their area of impact for both projects. The company and the provincial authorities of San Juan, bent on promoting mining in their province despite the ecological risks it presents to sensitive high mountain hydrological environments, have systematically denied such extensive glacier presence at Veladero or Pascua Lama, and claim that no project activity affects glaciers. Meanwhile, the company has had several top management shuffles at Pascua Lama, due to the inability to get past environmental hurdles.
Today, Barrick Gold’s flagship project Pascua Lama in Chile remains closed due to water and glacier contamination. Veladero, the adjacent Argentine project has now also been closed by a local federal judge, due to a recent spill of 1.2 million liters of cyanide-laced contamination. Barrick was forced to go public about the spill when twitter messages began circulating from its own workers to their families living downstream from the spill site, warning that they should not drink the water coming down the mountain as it was likely contaminated by cyanide. Barrick initially greatly underreported the spill, recognizing only 15,000 liters of spillage due to a broken valve, and indicated that the spill had not reached waterways. A top local mining authority slipped up in an interview with the press and countered Barrick’s position, indicating that the contamination had indeed moved towards waterways, including the Rio Taguas, a source of water for much of San Juan’s mountain communities. A few days later, public authorities were recommending that residents stock up with bottled water. As news broke and as local authorities demanded to visit the site, the company later admitted to having spilt over 200,000 liters of cyanide-laced contamination in the valve accident, and finally had to publicly admit the number was actually over 1.2 million liters. A criminal investigation is now underway against both Barrick management and several of San Juan’s public officials, who local community representatives and environmental organizations claim are complicit with the company in covering up the extent and seriousness of the contamination.
Instead of recognizing the validity of Picolotti’s and CEDHA’s findings against the company the mining sector systematically attacked Picolotti and CEDHA’s advocacy, suggesting that reports against Barrick and other mining companies were maliciously prepared with poor or no scientific basis. But more worryingly, about the same time as Picolotti shifted public focus on containing mining contamination while she was Argentina’s Environment Secretary, she, her staff and family began to receive anonymous death threats warning that she should stop intervening in the sector or face the consequences. Soon after she and her environmental police team began carrying out environmental audits and issuing fines and full or partial closures at petrochemical and pulp mill companies, as well as taking firm steps aiming to intervene in mining operations, accusations were leveled against her and at her administration suggesting she was illicitly mismanaging public funds. One source which preferred to remain anonymous indicated that the author of the article that ran in the Argentine Daily Clarin which spurred on a criminal investigation against Picolotti, recognized that the story was sponsored by a mining company, although he would not reveal which one.
While most of the accusations against Picolotti in the Clarin article were dismissed by the court for lack of evidence, the more her advocacy continued, the longer the judicial investigation lasted. New anonymous denunciations appeared aiming again to ethically discredit Picolotti and CEDHA before public opinion and keep her busy in a never-ending legal defense. Still today, nearly 8 years after leaving her post as Argentina’s Environment Secretary, and despite that none of these accusations have ever been proven, they persist in the court system. The case has been riddled with procedural irregularities, the least of which is the 8 years of an investigation which by statute should not surpass 4 months. The death threats she received while she was Environment Secretary were investigated by Argentina’s secret police but the sources of the threats were never identified.
What is clear is that the economic implications of Picolotti’s and CEDHA’s advocacy for mining investments is very large. Projects such as Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama, El Pachon (Glencore Xstrata), Los Azules (McEwen Mining), Famatina (Osisko), Filo Colorado (formerly Xstrata), Agua Rica (Yamana), and Cerro Amarillo (Meryllion), just to name a few, are all multi-billion dollar investments that today are completely stalled. Each of these projects has serious compliance issues and/or potentially unresolvable risks under Argentina’s National Glacier Protection Law, a law which Picolotti saw through Congress when she was Environment Secretary and which CEDHA has been working to fully implement. These projects alone involve over US$30 billion of investments. Still ruling President Cristina Fernandez vetoed an earlier version of the law in 2008 (forcing Picolotti’s resignation) but persistent advocacy by groups like Picolotti’s CEDHA and broad public support, brought the law back in 2010. The President openly justified her veto of the glacier law as a favor to the mining lobby. When the law came back two years later, Barrick Gold attacked its constitutionality in federal courts as soon as it was approved by Congress, obtaining a temporary suspension of the law in a record time of 23 hours, but that decision was overturned by the Supreme Court a year later, fully re-instating the glacier law, along with Barrick’s headaches to figure out how to comply with a glacier protection law that makes their flagship project a legal nightmare. But unlike the time when Picolotti ran the federal Environmental Authority, the current administration shows no hurry in pushing environmental compliance or meeting its obligations under the glacier protection law. The publication of Argentina’s Glacier Inventory, for example, called for by the law, is long overdue.
In the meantime, despite the continued defamatory campaign and persecution leveled against her to discredit her advocacy work, Romina Picolotti continues to speak out against irresponsible mining projects in Argentina before deaf public agency ears, including the environmental agency she used to run and which thanks to Picolotti is now the agency in charge of overseeing the implementation of the glacier protection law. Today she is steering CEDHA’s advocacy to include a strong focus on evolving fracking operations in Argentina’s Patagonia region, an investment sector valued by some estimates at more than US$500 billion over the next 50 years.
Below is CEDHA’s original press release published in May of 2011 along with a link to the report by CEDHA revealing contamination at Barrick’s Veladero mine.
May 4th, 2011 – San Juan Argentina. The Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) published a report today affirming that the streams and rivers in the immediate areas surrounding Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama and Veladero projects show in some cases that they have higher heavy metal concentrations than is permitted by Argentine law, and in others that heavy metal levels significantly surpass baseline measurements established by the company.
The report prepared by the Italian scientist, and visiting scholar at CEDHA, Flaviano Bianchini, informs that between the years 2002 and 2007, certain metals such as Lead, Arsenic, Aluminum, Mercury, and others dissolved metals, showed constant levels. Yet in 2009, every one of these peaked at levels attaining in some cases, upwards of 150 times the maximum standard values. “This would be impossible under natural causes in the short time since Barrick’s arrival at the site”, stated Bianchini. Clearly, these peaks are caused by extractive activities from Barrick’s Veladero project as well as exploratory and/or preparatory activities from Pascua Lama. Pascua Lama, it should be noted, has not yet started operations and may not do so if Argentina’s new glacier protection law prevails. Barrick currently is attacking the law in Argentine courts.
Additionally, and in particular relation to Barrick’s Veladero project, Lead concentrations, Arsenic, and Aluminum exceed levels permitted by Argentine Law. Measurements of oil and grease levels are also worrisome, as are Mercury readings found by parallel public monitoring conducted by the Center for the Prevention of Mining Industry Contamination (the CIPCAMI) of San Juan Province. Barrick’s reports fail to mention these measurements.
The research conducted by Bianchini was carried out based on public information obtained by CEDHA’s Mining, Environment and Human Rights team, during 2009 and 2010 via a series of information requests submitted to the provincial government of San Juan and with the collaboration of residents of the city of Jachal, a community living downstream from Barrick’s gold mining ventures. San Juan province’s mining authorities initially denied the information to CEDHA and to the community, but following intervention of the province’s Public Defender, the data was obtained, albeit in a much longer time than the law requires.
The registered levels of heavy metals shows real and tangible impacts to San Juan’s rivers and streams. CEDHA is concerned that the mining authorities of the province have not interceded to carry out their due diligence and responsibility in their environmental audit and control capacity. Instead, San Juan has proceeded normally recently approving Barrick’s Environmental Impact Studies for Veladero (November 2010).
A few days ago, San Juan Governor’s brother, Cesar Gioja, who was vying for the governorship until the incumbent governor (his brother) submitted an attempt to reform the constitution so he can be reelected. Cesar Gioja, who currently serves as Senator gave a highly unusual interview to local press attacking his brother-governor, stating that Barrick’s and the governments interest are intertwined, and that Barrick needs the reelection of the governor to keep the profits coming. Cesar Gioja, if elected governor, wants to reform the national mining code to keep more profits for the local government, a position echoed today by many congress members. According to Gioja, Barrick’s earnings from Veladero exceeded the entire provincial budget last year.
CEDHA’s report (available online in Spanish) calls on the Province of San Juan to assume its legal responsibility over the registered contamination, as well as control future social and environmental impacts of all mining activity in its territory.
For more information:
Jorge Daniel Taillant
firstname.lastname@example.org cel: +1 (415) 713 2309