Saturday, January 9, 2010
Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, the owner of what would be Chile’s largest gold mine, Pascua Lama, could face legal sanctions after Chile’s national water commission (DGA) reported that the company is failing to comply with Chile’s environmental laws.
The DGA last week petitioned regional environmental authorities in Chile’s Atacama Region III to file a legal complaint against the company. DGA’s concerns emerged after a study into construction at Pascua Lama highlighted possible environmental damage to nearby glaciers.
Atacama Region governor Viviana Ireland confirmed on Tuesday that authorities would look into the issue. But a statement from Barrick Gold maintained that no notification of legal proceedings had been received.
“In the event of any legal proceedings we will fully comply and take necessary action,” the statement read.
The DGA study suggested that workers were failing to comply with strict transport rules, such as covering vehicle cargo holds and moistening vehicle tires, designed to prevent dust emissions.
Authorities fear that dust emissions will damage nearby glaciers and the DGA suggests that a covering of dust could result in a glacier melt down. Experts believe that a covering of as little as 1mm of (heat absorbing) dust could result in glacier shrinkage of up to 15%.
The Pascua Lama project has been mired in controversy from the outset. Barrick Gold began surveying the area’s mineral wealth as early as 1991 and was originally granted a green light to begin construction by the Atacama regional government’s environmental board 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 further.
Environmental concern centres upon 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. Construction started in October, 2009, with Barrick Gold hoping to begin production by 2012.
Barrick Gold is the world’s biggest gold mining company and is planning to invest 3 billion US dollars in the Pascua Lama facility. The company estimates that the facility will annually produce 750,000 ounces of gold and 30 million ounces of silver.
Mining is one of Chile`s most valuable industries. On Wednesday, Chilean daily La Nacion reported that government income from nationwide mining operations would total more than 30 billion USD in the next 5 years.
Chile is the world’s biggest producer of copper with the mineral accounting for around 35% of national exports. The country currently ranks 16th in the world for gold production. A recent study conducted by Chile's National Copper Commission (COCHILCO) reports that the country will most likely triple its gold production within the next five years.
By James Fowler - Santiago Times