Proyecto Minero Pascua Lama
1 de octubre de 2006
Struggle at the top of the Andes
A Canadian-based firm's massive mining project on
the Chile-Argentina border promises much-needed
jobs, but environmentalists fear it will also
Kelly Patterson, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, October 01, 2006
It's one of the biggest, boldest and most costly
industrial ventures in the world -- a massive,
open-pit gold mine carved into the peaks of the
Andes, about 15,000 feet above sea level.
The world's first transnational mine, Barrick
Gold Corp.'s $1.6-billion Pascua Lama venture
would straddle the border between Chile and
Argentina, which both had to sign special treaty
provisions for the project.
It's a high-tech, high-stakes venture, in which
Toronto-based Barrick -- the world's largest gold
producer -- had at first planned to move three
glaciers to get to gold and silver deposits worth
more than $11 billion.
The deal would bring more than 5,500 temporary
and 1,600 permanent jobs as well as millions of
dollars in spinoff benefits to an area hit by
18-per-cent unemployment, Barrick says.
But Luis Faura, a farmer and councillor for the
nearby Chilean municipality of Alto del Carmen,
says the project, on track to start in January,
will spell disaster for the 66,000 people who
live in the area.
Lucio Cuenca and Luis Faura came to Toronto from Chile to plead with officials to make sure Canadian megaprojects abroad
follow the same standards they would at home
"I will oppose this project with all the strength I have," says Mr. Faura.
He and Lucio Cuenca of the Chilean environmental
group OLCA travelled to Toronto last month to
government-sponsored roundtable discussions on
ethics and Canadian extractive industries
operating overseas, where they pleaded with
officials to ensure Canadian mega-projects abroad
follow the same standards they would at home.
The roundtables, which bring together industry,
the federal government and human-rights and
environmental groups, were formed after a 2005
report by the Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs and International Trade called for "legal
norms" to regulate Canadian mining and oil
companies overseas. The roundtables resume next
month in Calgary.
Mr. Faura lives at the foot of the mountains in
the lush Huasco Valley, where about 700 farmers
grow everything from avocados to grapes.
Runoff from the glaciers atop the stark,
gold-rich peaks that tower above the valley is
critical; without it, the valley would quickly
turn into badlands in the desert-like setting of
the high Andes, Mr. Faura explains.
He also fears the mine, which will use cyanide to
leach gold from the ore, will contaminate the
runoff in this unique area, which lies not far
from a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
"There is no way the mine will not affect the
water," he says. "It is already so dry here; the
people in the valley next to ours only have
enough water left for seven years. I don't want
that to happen to us."
Barrick's plan touched off a national furore in
Chile when it was revealed the mine planned to
move three glaciers in its bid to mine about 18.3
million ounces of gold and 685 million ounces of
silver; Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet,
made a pledge to protect them part of her
campaign last winter.
In February, Chilean officials approved the
project, but ordered Barrick not to disturb the
The company then revised its plans, leaving as
much as a million ounces of gold untouched, says
Barrick spokesman Vince Borg. "Our plan will not
affect the water supply in any way," Mr. Borg
Barrick has spent almost $17 million in Chile
alone on its 5,300-page environmental assessment,
gaining input from farmers as well as major
technical firms and universities, he says.
Barrick's state-of-the-art system will contain
contaminated water and divert runoff from the
mine, Mr. Borg says, adding that
community-development projects such as irrigation
initiatives will, in fact, "improve both the
quantity and quality of water in the valley."
But Mr. Cuenca says Barrick's exploration
activities have already affected the glaciers on
the concession, named Toro 1, Toro 2 and
Esperanza. "They put 13 drilling platforms in the
Esperanza glacier. ... How can that not affect
it?" he asks.
He also says dust from the operations coated the
glaciers, accelerating the natural melting
process. A 2005 report by Chile's General Water
Directorate found "a 50- to 70-per-cent reduction
in the area of the three glaciers" between 1986
and 2000, he says.
If the mine goes ahead, blasting during the
construction phase would send tonnes of dust into
the air every day -- a measure he says is certain
to smother those as well as glaciers in the area.
Vince Borg confirms the company put 13 drill
holes in the Esperanza glacier, but points out
that Barrick's activities were "duly authorized
by relevant authorities."
As for the argument that dust from mine
activities has already affected the ice, "this is
just talk. It is not true," replies Mr. Borg, who
says government studies, including a 2005 report
by CONAMA, Chile's national environmental
commission, have consistently found no
correlation between the mine's activities and the
rate of melting.
Studies show Chile's glaciers are all melting at
the same rate due to global warming, he adds.
"The icefields/glaciers at Pascua Lama are
naturally dusty due to other wind-borne dust from
the surrounding mountains -- without any mining
activity," adds Mr. Borg. He says construction
could put as much as six tonnes of dust a day
into the air, but prevailing winds and
dust-control measures mean less than 0.25
millimetres would actually settle on the glaciers.
Mr. Faura is also concerned the extreme
conditions at the site will overwhelm the mine's
containment systems, releasing tonnes of cyanide
into the Huasco Valley water.
The area is subject not only to extreme weather,
but earthquakes as well: the U.S. Geological
Survey has recorded three earthquakes in the area
with a magnitude of 6.7 or more in the past four
But Mr. Borg says cyanide treatment will be done
in a closed system with multiple safeguards to
"This will be a fully earthquake-proofed
facility," Mr. Borg adds, explaining that
technical experts have designed the site to
withstand extreme conditions that exceed any in
the recorded history of the area.
Mr. Cuenca also worries about the more than a
billion tonnes of waste rock the mine plans to
store near the headwaters of the Estrecho River.
Waste rock is hazardous due to a process called
acid rock drainage, in which sulphuric acid as
well as toxins such as mercury, arsenic and
cadmium leach out of exposed waste-rock piles.
Barrick stresses that all contaminated water will
be captured and diverted for use at the mine.
The mine also plans to set up 34 automated
water-testing points that will send
up-to-the-minute reports that officials and the
public can access; the system will be monitored
independently, it says.
Mr. Borg says there is overwhelming support for
the project on both sides of the border, where
economic stimulation and development projects are
desperately needed. "As of a month ago we had
53,000 applications for jobs," he points out.
But Mr. Faura says jobs and community aid will be
of little comfort to the residents of the Huasco
Valley if they lose their only water source.
"The company may give us little gifts right now,
but once the area is contaminated and the company
is finished and goes away, what are we left
with?" he asks.