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NEWS: Pascua Lama mine threatens glaciers, water in Chile and Argentina

Protests against Barrick Gold and Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he visited the companys office in Santiago, Chile in 2007. Photo by Ryan Remiorz/ Canadian Press.

Protests against Barrick Gold and Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he visited the company’s office in Santiago, Chile in 2007. Photo by Ryan Remiorz/ Canadian Press.

In a feature article, Catherine Solyom of the National Post reports, “What happens (on the border of Chile and Argentina in the Andes mountains) in Pascua-Lama, where Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold is developing the first open-pit gold mine to straddle two countries, will have a huge impact on the people living in the valleys below on both sides of the border — for better or for worse. After more than a decade of intense debate — often played out in front of the Canadian embassies in Santiago and Buenos Aires — the mine is set to open in 2014, and to produce 850,000 ounces of gold a year, as well as vast amounts of copper and silver. …Critics, local and in the faraway capitals of Buenos Aires and Santiago, fear the project — located in virgin territory amid glaciers that feed several rivers below — could wreak long-term environmental havoc if chemicals make their way into the river systems or the glaciers are damaged.”

“The mine will use up to 38 tonnes of explosives a day to blast mountaintops into rocks, then up to 27 tonnes of cyanide and 33 million litres of water per day to extract the gold. Some critics, like the mayor of Vallenar, Chile, who was once a miner himself, said it’s not safe for anyone to work with heavy machinery and toxic chemicals at that altitude, where winds can gust up to 300 kilometres an hour and rock falls, electrical storms and avalanches are a danger. …At least 14 workers have died on the Chilean side since 1997, when exploration at the mine site began in earnest, several from accidents when their vehicles rolled over, one in a rock fall and five who froze to death. …Recently, the Chilean government ordered Barrick on Oct. 31 to suspend pre-stripping at the mine — blasting off the very tops of the mountain peaks that don’t contain valuable ore — out of concerns workers were breathing in too much noxious dust. Work has not yet resumed.”

“(While one can calculate profits and royalties), it is not so easy to put a number on the cost to farmers and wine producers, already living in the most arid region on Earth, if their worst fears come true and their entire way of life evaporates along with the glaciers above. They can live without gold, they said. But they can’t live without water. For them, the rush for gold and silver at Pascua-Lama is symptomatic of a second, gentler, conquest of the Americas — this time, led by the Canadians.”

“About 45 km from — and 4,500 metres below — the mine (is) the municipality of Alto del Carmen … in the Huasco Valley, part of the Atacama Desert, (in Chile)… Drier than the Sahara Desert, it has rained only once here in the last 10 years… Yet the Huasco Valley, a 700-km, 12-hour drive north from Santiago, is the last fertile region in the north of the country, thanks largely to the glaciers above. Even without rain, the rivers born in the Andes cordillera are replenished by snow and glacier melt, bringing water for irrigation and other uses to about 70,000 people in the valley so they can harvest three crops a year — starting with grapes destined for the U.S. and Canada. Over hundreds of years, the glaciers have provided cyclical relief to the parched land — the less it rains, the more water is released from the glaciers, to be used for irrigation, much like withdrawing savings from a bank during lean years. The prolonged drought has taken its toll, however. For the last three summers, part of the Huasco River, including a 10-km stretch where generations of local children have gone swimming, has slowed to a trickle. Some blame Barrick, though operations at the mine have not yet begun; others point to climate change as the likely culprit. But few doubt that the mine will mean more competition for increasingly scarce water resources, and that its operations could exacerbate the situation.”

“According to the terms of the special protocol signed by Argentina, Chile and Barrick Gold in 2004, the company will be entitled to take 42 litres of water per second from the Chilean side, and 350 litres a second from the Argentinian side. That’s almost 34 million litres of water a day. …(Barrick) intends to use 1% of the Huasco River’s flow, and 55% of the flow of the Taguas River in Argentina.”

“There is evidence that Barrick’s exploration activities are directly responsible for the shrinkage of three smaller glaciers within the Pascua-Lama territory. …Toro 1, Toro II and Esperanza glaciers have shrunk by 50 to 70% since the company began exploring for gold in 1997. There has been no other activity in the vicinity to explain the drastic shrinkage. …The company drilled in and around the glaciers and even built a road through one. The dust that was created, whipped by the fierce winds, landed on the glaciers and turned them a darker shade of grey. The glaciers therefore absorbed more sunlight, and melted. …(Barrick) will be using 82 tonnes of explosives per day. How will they make sure they are not harming the glaciers? How will they control the dust, and the vibrations?”

“While three quarters of the ore will come from Chile, most of the water, and all the chemical processing, will be done in Argentina, ironically within the boundaries of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, the Reserva San Guillermo.”

The Diaguita Huascoaltinos Indigenous and Agricultural Community in Chile opposes the Pascua Lama mine. At our June 2012 ‘Shout Out Against Mining Injustice’ conference in Vancouver, Sergio Campusano Villches, the president of the community, spoke against the Pascua Lama mine. Campaign blogs on Pascua Lama can be found at http://canadians.org/blog/?s=%22pascua+lama%22. For more on the Council of Canadians/ Blue Planet Project campaign against mining injustice, see http://canadians.org/mining. The article can be read at http://business.financialpost.com/2012/12/14/more-than-just-costs-a-concern-at-barrick-golds-8-5b-pascua-lama-megamine/.