Proyecto minero Pascua Lama

Northern authority launches investigation into Barrick Gold's Pascua Lama site
Mining Giant Faces Sanctions If It Broke Chile's Environmental Laws

Fuente:, 22/01/2010


FRIDAY, 22 JANUARY 2010 07:21

The environmental authority for Chile's Atacama region, Corema, will investigate alleged breaches of environmental law committed by Canadian gold mining firm Barrick Gold at its Pascua Lama facility, Corema announced this week.

Environmentalists claim the Pascua Lama facility threatens the Toro 1, Toro2 and Esperanza glaciers. Photo courtesy of earthsound

The investigation will study damage to local glaciers caused by construction work at the facility, where work began only months ago.

Environmental groups gave a mixed reaction to the Corema announcement, stressing the importance of concrete action to prevent long-term damage to the area.

"This investigation is the minimum we had hoped for, but at last people are taking the issue seriously," Lucio Cuenca, director of the environmental group OLCA, told the Santiago Times yesterday. "These glaciers are fragile resources which are very important to local communities and need to be protected."

An investigation was called for earlier this month by Chile's national water authority, DGA, after a survey of the Pascua Lama construction site found workers ignoring environmental laws (ST. Jan 7).

The DGA study observed workers failing to comply with strict transport rules, such as covering vehicle cargo holds and moistening vehicle tires to reduce dust in the air.

It is feared that dust will cover local glaciers, causing them to melt. Experts believe that a covering of as little as 1mm of dust, which absorbs heat, could result in glacier shrinkage of up to 15 percent.

Barrick is also accused of extracting water from unauthorized local sources. The company denies any law breaking and say they will fully comply with the investigation.

Barrick has 10 working days to present a defense against the charges and could face a financial penalty of US$50,000 if found guilty. However, Cuenca insisted that more drastic steps are needed to ensure the glacier's safety.

"We hope Corema will order the suspension of the project, at least until a new environmental assessment is completed," he said.

Barrick Gold began surveying the Atacama area's mineral wealth as early as 1991 and was granted a green light to begin construction by Corema in 2001. But subsequent environmental protests, a land ownership battle and a dispute with neighboring Argentina about how mining taxes were to be divvied up delayed the project.

Environmental concerns focused on the proximity of the Pascua Lama facility to three Andean glaciers straddling the Argentine-Chilean border. These glaciers are hugely important water sources for the Huasco Valley, supplying water to 70,000 small farms. It is feared that mining operations will seriously deplete their size.

The construction of the Pascua Lama mine was finally authorized by the Chilean government's water commission in September 2009 (ST, Sept 23). Construction started in October 2009, with Barrick Gold hoping to begin production by 2012.

Barrick Gold is the world's biggest gold mining company, reporting profits of US$1.6 billion in 2008. The company is also involved in an ongoing legal case in Canada over the ownership of the El Morro gold facility located only 70 km from Pascua Lama (ST. Jan 15).

Barrick claims to have purchased a 70 percent share in the El Morro site in October last year. This is disputed by the mine's minority share holder, New Gold, who claim that this 70 percent share was sold instead to Barrick's rival Gold Corp.

By James Fowler