Veladero: history repeats itself

Veladero: history repeats itself

Barrick Gold is the world’s biggest gold mine and the owner of Veladero. This open-cast mine (pictured, from the air) is located in a periglacial zone, and is dedicated principally to the extraction of gold and silver.

(Martin Katz/Greenpeace)

On Sunday 13 September 2015, the residents of Jáchal, a town in the north of San Juan province in Argentina, received a WhatsApp message warning of an accident. The message came from one of the operators of the Veladero mine, 230 kilometres further up the river, alerting family members there had been a spill at the site.

“This caused a huge commotion in the town because the only information we had was this message, and there was a sense of desperation over the lack of information,” recalls Virginia Carpo, a Jáchal resident and a member of the neighbourhood organisation Jáchal No Se Toca (Don’t touch Jáchal).

“It was particularly bad for the mothers who didn’t know if they could let their children drink the water, or bathe. There was so much uncertainty.”

One week after the incident, Barrick Gold, the world’s biggest gold mining company and the owner of Veladero, reported that a total of one million litres of cyanide solution had been spilt – the biggest mining accident in the history of Argentina.

History repeating itself

The spill was one of four that have occurred since 2015 at Veladero, an open-cast mine located in a periglacial zone, dedicated principally to the extraction of gold and silver. The frequency and size of the spills at Veladero have alarmed local communities and environmental groups, who have called on the national government to close the mine.

“Veladero has a tremendous impact on the local environment. Entire mountains have disappeared because of open-cast mining. All the rocks are crushed, creating a dust which settles on the glaciers and other eco-systems, and to extract the gold from the rock enormous quantities of chemicals such as cyanide are used,” explains Gonzalo Strano, coordinator of Greenpeace’s campaign to protect the glaciers.

According to a report by the Centre for Human Rights and the Environment, cyanide poisoning can cause respiratory arrest and affect organs such as the heart. A study by the Federal Police of Argentina carried out following the September 2015 spill revealed that the cyanide ended up contaminating five rivers, leaving an “excessive concentration” of salts and cobalt in the water of the domestic network.

“The mine is contaminating the glacial zone where the rivers begin, these are our water tanks” says Carpo. “This has always been an agricultural and ranching area. Imagine how this is affecting us. We can’t sell our products now because of the contamination.”

Despite constant pressure from Jáchal residents and environmental organisations like Greenpeace, the provincial and national governments have done little to respond to the calls for the mine to be closed. According to those involved in this cause, this is due to political and economic interests.

“Cristina Kirchner’s government included an official who has their own mine, and another who has the same address as Barrick Gold,” says Mariano Aguilar, chair of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers of Patagonia.

“We are therefore lodging a complaint regarding the responsibility of the national and San Juan officials, because they failed to make the checks they should have made at the right time to ensure that crises and spills didn’t occur.”

In 2010 the National Congress passed the ’Law on minimum budgets for the protection of glaciers and the periglacial environment’. Amongst other regulations, the law banned mine exploration and exploitation in protected areas, which disqualified the Veladero operation.

After the intervention of various mining associations, however, the federal judge of San Juan, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, suspended the application of the new law for the entire province.

Despite a ruling by the Supreme Court that the Government of San Juan had to comply with the law, further delays in its implementation enabled Valadero to continue operating.

“All governments have sided with the mining companies and have never listened to the demands of the environmental organisations. The previous government met four times with the CEO of Barrick and never met with an environmentalist,” says Strano.

“There are clearly very important economic interests at play here which means that, despite all the warnings, activities are allowed to continue, even in zones where it is prohibited by law.”

An international trend

The Veladero case is not unique in the world. Barrick Gold also has mining projects in Chile, Peru, Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Canada, the United States, Zambia and Saudi Arabia. Many of these mines have a similar history to Veladero.

Research by Human Rights Watch revealed cases of violence, sexual abuse and even murders at the Barrick Gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The researchers also calculated that the mine had spilled an average of 16,000 tons of liquid waste a day into the nearby Porgera River, in breach of international standards.

In Tanzania, the company was accused of paying bribes in cash to the local authorities, and in the Dominican Republic of causing millions of dollar worth of losses to local producers because of water contamination. Meanwhile, in Chile, the government decided to halt the Pascua-Lama project, a Barrick mine on Chilean and Argentine territory, because of environmental concerns.

“When we evaluated Barrick’s operations in 10 different countries, it was easy to discard the bad apple theory. You can see there are systemic problems in the industry,” says Sakura Saunmders, editor of Protest Barrick, a web portal for groups researching and organising around mining issues around the world.

“These companies lie regularly and there are no international laws to make them responsible for their violations. All over the world we see Barrick covering up disasters and carrying out irresponsible mining.”

According to Saunders, one of the reasons Barrick Gold has been able to continue operating in these countries is its communications strategy.

“Barrick puts a lot of money into its charm offensive, convincing people that it is a responsible company. It invests heavily in its image, and many of its cover-ups have been successful,” says Saunders.

In Argentina, the fight against Barrick Gold continues. After the last Veladero spill in March this year, the government of Argentina ordered the suspension of the mine’s activities until it took the necessary safety measures. Two months later, the government of San Juan approved the mine’s improvement plans, enabling it to resume operations in full at the beginning of June.

“It’s a disgrace that they keep giving opportunities to a company that has shown repeatedly that it does not comply with the law and does not respect the environment,” says Aguilar.

The residents of Jáchal are determined to keep fighting until Veladero’s ports are closed permanently.

“Obviously they will keep pushing to continue their activities, but the local residents say ‘no’. We cannot constantly have our hearts in our mouths, worried about whether there will be another spill or not,” says Carpo.

“We will carry on, and we will keep fighting until there is an end to this.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.