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Cyanide Spill due to Ice Accident in Periglacial Environment at Barrick’s Veladero Mine in Argentina
September 16 2016. San Juan Argentina.
“On September 8, 2016, a pipe carrying process solution in the heap leach area was damaged when it was struck by a large block of ice that had rolled down the heap leach valley slope.”. (source Barrick Gold)
The statement by the company, Barrick Gold, regarding a recent accident at its Veladero mine and a resulting cyanide spill, reveal the gross oversight of provincial mining authorities, of federal environmental authorities, and the many other public officials that are responsible for guaranteeing the compliance of Argentina’s Glacier and Periglacial Protection Law.
Why did a “large block of ice” roll down a hill and damage a pipe at Veladero? The answer is not that complicated if one reads the detailed report prepared by Argentina’s Glacier Institute geologist, Lydia Espizua a decade ago. Both of Barrick’s projects in the area, Veladero and Pascua Lama, were designed, and in the case of Veladero, were built, on periglacial environment–or, frozen ground. This part of the Central Andes, at over 4,000 meters, is completely frozen for most of the year. The problem for infrastructure as any that has build on periglacial lands knows, is that the Earthfreezes and melts cyclically, in such environments. Ice forms beneath the earth, and any accumulation of snow turns to ice. Then, when the climate warms, maybe a few months out of the year, or on especially warm days, this ice goes through melt/freeze cycles and becomes extremely unstable.
That’s typical of periglacial environments, and that’s why the new Argentine Glacier and Periglacial Protection Law prohibits mining in glacier and periglacial areas. It’s simply too dangerous, not to mention that it places hydrological resources at risk. Periglacial areas are extremely rich water reserves, in storage for when downstream environments need it most.
The periglacial risk for infrastructure is also why Barrick Gold initially proposed to dynamite glaciers at the Pascua Lama site to get at gold. The company said quite ironically in its initial impact assessment reports that glaciers were a “threat to the environment”, because as they dug up ice to get at gold, the instability caused by moving around frozen terrain, could result in ice collapsing, ruining equipment and potentially harming people.
The periglacial specialist of San Juan Province in Argentina, (where Veladero is located) , Juan Pablo Milana, who also authored the province’s glacier inventory, had warned former governor Jose Luis Gioja and then mining minster Felipe Saavedra, that it was a bad idea to place mining infrastructure, and certainly heavy industrial waste pile sites on periglacial terrain. The instability caused to the ice could be highly volatile, and even deadly. Milana later discovered, in 2008, that Barrick Gold had in fact failed to inform the province of a massive collapse of earth at the Veladero project caused precisely because they had cited a waste pile site on periglacial terrain.
No-one took heed. No-one questioned this design flaw of the Veladero and Pascua Lama projects. An when the Glacier Protection Law was finally approved, neither the San Juan authorities, nor the Federal Environment Ministry authorities, nor the federal mining authorities took any action to force Barrick to redesign their project plans to comply with the Glacier Law.
Today, as this accident shows, they are paying the price for this oversight and irresponsibility.
For more information:
Jorge Daniel Taillant
+1 415 713 2309
Espizua Report on Periglacial Environment at Veladero. IANIGLA
Massive Collapse at Veladero. CEDHA (with information from información Juan Pablo Milana)
Barrick’s Glaciers: CHRE.
https://center-hre.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Los-Glaciares-de-Barrick-Gold-version-20-mayo-2013-ENGLISH-small.pdf Photo: Infobae
Letter to Minister Aranguren (On Mining Policy Violations of Glacier Law)