Glaciers Under Threat by Mining in Chile

September 25, 2007

Chile’s lush Huasco Valley is flanked by bone-dry hills that reach up towards the towering ridges of the Andes. Some 5,000 meters above the valley, where the temperature is cold enough to capture the scarce rainfall, giant ancient glaciers blanket the landscape. Runoff water from these glaciers feeds the crystaline streams that nourish the fruit-bearing valleys below—the last fertile frontier on the fringe of the driest desert in the world, the Atacama.

One of the many thousands of small farmers who depend on the region’s abundance, local distiller Eduardo Mulet, walks through his golden fields of grapes, pointing out the vines his great grandfather planted after immigrating to Chile from Spain a century ago. It’s the end of the harvest season, and in this valley of persistent sun, the leaves are already starting to shrivel with the beginning of the dry winter months.

“These glaciers are what sustain us during dry years,” says Mulet. “Sometimes, we go three or four years without a drop of rain. So, my fear is that if they interfere with these glaciers, we’ll die as a valley.”

Ever conscious of the delicate ecological conditions they face, many farmers in this valley are wary of the plans laid out in recent months by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold. Barrick, the world’s third-largest gold producer, owns a broad swath of land here, and if its projections are correct, this area saddling the Chilean-Argentine border could be home to one of the largest gold reserves in the world. The Argentine side, where Barrick is completing construction of the Veladero mine site, has approximately 12 million reserve ounces of gold. The Chilean side—dubbed “Pascua Lama” by Barrick—is estimated to contain at least 17.6 million reserve ounces of gold and more than 600 million ounces of silver, as well as large reserves of copper and iron.

The problem for Barrick is that their metallic treasure trove is buried beneath three huge glaciers. The company has spent the past 10 years developing a plan to build the 450-meter-wide open-pit mine, with a monstrous investment of $1.5 billion dollars. The plan includes an ambitious proposal to “relocate” large portions of the glaciers: 70% of the Esperanza glacier, 4% of the Toro One glacier and 20% of the Toro Two. All told, these glaciers span approximately 24 hectares. The plan calls for moving roughly 10 hectares—about 25 acres—of that surface area, which amounts to 800,000 cubic meters of ice.

How Barrick plans to achieve this feat is surprisingly low-tech. Their proposal involves 240-ton trucks that will use huge hydraulic shovels to break into the glaciers and scoop up the large chunks of ice. The glacier pieces will then be transported by truck between two and six kilometers away, to the larger Guanaco glacier, where they’ll be tacked onto its southern face (which gets the most shade in the Southern Hemisphere). “It’s too short a time for the ice to melt,” explains Jeffrey Schmok, a glaciologist and consultant with the international ground-engineering firm Golder Associates, who is advising Barrick on the project. “It’ll be moved at a time of year [with temperatures at] minus 6 or 8, and when it’s picked up in big blocks, its temperature will stay stable.”

Schmok says it takes a matter of days for the ice to adhere to the new glacier. The whole process would take four months. And while not a common practice, he cites the successful relocation of glaciers in Kazakhstan. “The movement of ice is something that people do in northern climates all the time,” he says. “They take ice, move it in shovels to pick up snow from the roads and they pick that up and move it … and that’s essentially what’s going to happen here.”

With its intensely diverse geography, from the semi-arid Norte Chico to the varied microclimates of the Norte Grande, Chile’s north is vastly different from most other climates. But Barrick’s vice-president for corporate communications, Vincent Borg, assures that all the necessary studies have been done, and that the relocation has been mapped out by top engineers. “The environmental viability of the ice relocation is not based on any complex energy balances or any sort of unusual hydrological conditions. It’s a logistical challenge more than anything,” says Borg.

Still, the project continues to raise serious concerns among some South American scientists. Renowned ecologist Raúl Montenegro, based at the University of Córdoba in Argentina, calls Barrick’s environmental impact study “faulty” and “offensive.” He says Barrick is treating the glaciers like “piles of ice” rather than essential parts of a fragile desert ecosystem. “You can’t just pick up a glacier, move it, and then tell the rain to fall elsewhere,” says Montenegro. “If you destroy these factories that have been collecting water and ice over centuries the damage is permanent.”

Montenegro testified at hearings held in Santiago last April, urging members of Chile’s Congress to reject Barrick’s plan. He cited the destruction of glaciers during Barrick’s construction of the Veladero mine site on the Argentine side of the border. He claims the damage is well documented in the court proceedings of a case he expects to take all the way to the federal level in Argentina’s judicial system.

Some legislators at those earlier hearings also voiced their concerns at the Santiago hearings. Fulvio Rossi, a member of the Socialist Party, accused Barrick of leaving a legacy of environmental damage in his region, further north. “During the explorations of the geysers of Puchuldisa, your record is pretty dismal,” he told company representatives. “Photos have been handed to our government’s environmental authorities, revealing that your own climate mitigation plan wasn’t met. There is now toxic waste, chemicals … and the destruction of natural waterways.”

The Chilean environmental movement has also pointed at Barrick’s problems abroad. In Western Australia, Barrick has been facing heat over the Lake Cowal gold mine, which it partially owns. A government report released in October 2004 found elevated salinity levels, along with heavy metal and cyanide contamination, in the groundwater around the mine’s dam.

Cyanide is the chemical of choice in the gold mining industry. More than 90% of the 2,500 tons of gold extracted around the world annually is produced using cyanide-leaching techniques. This is of serious concern because cyanide is highly toxic to humans, animals and plant life. Only one teaspoon of a 2% cyanide solution is enough to kill a person.

Borg acknowledges the company plans to use cyanide for the Pascua Lama mine. Barrick also plans to use arsenic in the extraction process. The specter of these chemicals being transported through the valley’s serpentine roads, skirting 250 kilometers of river ways to the high mountains, has more than a few locals worried.

Just 40 kilometers downstream of the proposed Pascua Lama site, in the tiny hamlet of Corral, Ramiro Barrera tends to his crops of grapes, peaches, figs and lemons. He says he takes no comfort from Barrick’s proposal to build a channel to protect any of the water that would flow near the mine. “Gold mining today is also highly chemical, and we worry there could be some sort of spill that would contaminate our waters,” says Barrera.

Eduardo Mulet says Barrick seems to be a responsible company, but notes that accidents are human. Mulet grows and distills his grapes into pisco, a traditional liquor, and depends on the El Carmen River not only to irrigate his vineyard, but also to give his alcohol its unique taste.

An accident would have grave consequences for the entire Huasco Valley, says Jessica Rodríguez, who runs a kidney dialysis center in the region’s capital, Vallenar. She says the slightest impurity in the water could render the center useless. Rodríguez is also president of the Valley’s Community Defense Council—one of the many local groups organizing the 70,000 people who live along the 250 kilometer stretch of waterways between the glaciers and the Pacific Ocean.

At one of the Council’s meetings, in a quaint country home on a Sunday afternoon, organizer Francisco Bou Ruíz-Aburto rails against the mining industry as he pores over a heap of topographic and satellite maps. He is president of the Agriculturalists of the San Felix Valley and has been fighting mining companies since 1980, when Lac Minerals opened the El Indio mine site further south and diverted portions of the El Carmen River. (Barrick acquired that site, and Pascua Lama, from Lac in 1994.)

“Their satellite studies show they’ve found the great gold reserve of the Americas,” says Ruíz-Aburto. “They think there are $40 billion dollars worth of gold there, so they are going to do whatever it takes to get at that gold. And it’s a foreign company, so they’ll exploit it, pocket all the profits and leave the damage for us to clean up.”

Such sentiment about foreign investors has been building in recent months. Five thousand people protested in cities across Chile on July 10, accusing the government of being soft on the environment in favor of foreign investment. The protests targeted Barrick, as well as a Chilean pulp and paper plant accused of killing rare swans in Chile’s south and a French-Spanish-owned sewage plant emitting foul odors in Santiago.

Graffiti against Pascua Lama can be found almost everywhere in the nearby towns lining the rivers. On the entrance to the hamlet of Alto del Carmen, one sign reads: “Mr. Bush: we don’t want you in our valley either.” George H.W. Bush is on Barrick’s board of directors, and some groups are using his involvement in the transnational to fuel opposition. And in an attempt to internationalize the issue, the Citizens’ Foundation for the Americas has petitioned the UN’s High Commission for Human Rights, calling the proposal a violation of the collective rights of the Huasco Valley’s locals and indigenous people.

Barrick counters that their extensive field studies show there won’t be any significant impact on either the quality or the quantity of the surrounding waters. “The impact would be less than 2% of the flow in the nearest flow stations upstream of the agricultural users in the driest months,” says Simon Catchpole, environmental supervisor for the Pascua Lama project. “And the project would only need to intervene on 10 hectares…. That represents less than one half of a percent of the total volume of glaciers in that basin.”

But opinion is divided as to the impact on the region’s waterways, to the point that even some of Barrick’s own experts acknowledge it could decrease the volume of water in the rivers. “The net effect is a decrease in the surface area of the ice,” admits Michael Jones, an engineer with Hydrologic Consulting. He says glaciers are storage facilities for water and relocating them onto a new and larger storage unit will mean less meltwater. “It will slightly decrease [river flow] because it will add storage from these small, fragile glaciers.”

Barrick’s first proposal to move the glaciers, back in 2000, hardly raised an eyebrow. Its feasibility and environmental impact studies were presented to the Chilean authorities and approved in principle in 2001. But at the time, gold prices were low—around $250 dollars per ounce—so Barrick shelved the project, until drilling revealed larger reserves and gold prices were on the rebound. Because the renewed project involved extracting much larger quantities of gold, Barrick had to present new feasibility and environmental impact studies. They presented a revised plan to the Chilean authorities in December 2004. But this time around the project attracted media attention, and the ensuing controversy is putting pressure on government officials to carefully scrutinize the project.

To counter the bad publicity, Barrick has conducted an intensive public relations campaign, including television ads that paint the project as environmentally friendly in terms of water treatment and stress the direct jobs it would provide. The company claims that the Pascua Lama mine would create 5,500 temporary jobs during the three-year construction of the mine, and another 1,600 jobs over the mine’s estimated 20-year lifetime.

But Barrick’s project is not a done deal. In late April, Barrick submitted a detailed glacier management plan to Chile’s Regional Corporation for the Environment (COREMA). The environmental regulator has reviewed and returned it, citing a lack of detail on the impact the mine would have on underground waters and inconsistencies in the figures provided on precipitation. COREMA also specifically asked that Barrick reconsider its method for gold extraction to avoid moving the glaciers, recommending Barrick consider combining open-pit methods with “non-invasive” underground extraction. Barrick re-submitted a proposal that is currently being considered by COREMA.

Some observers believe COREMA will approve Barrick’s project, given the jobs it is expected to generate. Barrick has several supporters in Vallenar, where the unemployment rate is 18.4%, more than twice the national average. “We also have to remember that Barrick is providing jobs for our region at a time when agriculture is suffering,” says Osiel Cubillos, a construction worker recently hired by Barrick to widen the road leading up to the mine. And while environmental groups have protested, some local water users have engaged in quiet talks with Barrick Gold. The company has now agreed to provide $60 million dollars to mitigate any problems caused by the mine, alleviating many locals’ concerns.

Still, getting all the needed environmental and government approvals could take months, so Barrick isn’t planning to begin construction of the Pascua Lama mine until early 2006. But the roadwork has already started along the route from the mine to Vallenar, a sign of Barrick’s confidence it will get the needed approvals.

About the Author
Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile. She writes frequently on social, economic and environmental issues.

Tags: Chile, glaciers, mining, environment, Barrick, COREMA

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