The world’s largest gold-mining company plans to “re-locate” three pristine glaciers in South America to excavate a vast open-pit gold mine, with production techniques that could poison the air and water with cyanide and mercury, destroying a way of life for 70,000 people in a wine-producing valley directly below.
Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. (NYSE: ABX) expects approval in mid-February from the Chilean environmental agency for its project at Pascua Lama, an 1,860-square-mile mining concession straddling the Chile-Argentina border in the Andes Mountains, 370 miles north of Santiago. Eighty percent of the concession is on the Chile side. Barrick’s attempt to characterize its plans by calling the destruction of three ancient glaciers a “re-location” of the ice has provoked public outrage and the first mass protest in front of the Canadian Embassy in 15 years.
Barrick expects a yield of 17.6 million ounces of gold, in addition to silver and copper, and to turn a $1.5 billion investment into $10 billion in profits over 20 years, given Chile’s low production costs and a strong world demand for metals.
“Corporate profits and cheap gold for jewelry shouldn’t come at the expense of people’s health, ravaging the environment and wildlife, or by destroying such unique natural elements as glaciers, already under pressure from global warming,” said economist Marcel Claude, Oceana’s vice president for South America and Antarctica. “Mercury travels great distances in the air and water and will end up in the Chilean sea, where the fish will become contaminated.”
Pascua Lama is 220 miles from Chile’s Pacific Coast and 15,000 feet above sea level. It encompasses three glaciers named Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza, the source of water for the Huasco Valley, a fertile spot in the otherwise dry north of Chile. Huasco Valley farmers grow wine grapes, fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption and export.
Cyanide is used to extract the gold from the ore, and the production process releases mercury in the ore into the air. Waste waters with toxic concentrations of cyanide are kept in holding ponds and dams, historically given to rupturing, especially in an earthquake-prone zone as Pascua Lama. Cyanide could leach into the soil and groundwater, and a breach could trigger a catastrophic cyanide spill. The Huasco Valley is directly below Pascua Lama.
“Huasco Valley farmers who depend on these glacier waters for irrigation may lose their livelihoods, just as many of Chile’s artisanal fishermen who already have lost theirs from unrestrained international industrial fishing,” said Claude. “We should be preventing mercury contamination, not increasing it.”
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