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A controversial mine

A Canadian company's plan to build a gold and silver mine on the Chile-Argentina border spurs controversy.

Demonstrators opposed to the Pascua-Lama gold mine march towards Chile's Mining Ministry on May 14. The banner reads: “If you lack water, it’s because you have too much mining." (Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post)

SANTIAGO — The world’s leading gold producer is set to begin building the largest open pit gold and silver mine in the world on the Chile-Argentina border this year, amid accusations that the operation will harm nearby glaciers and endanger the local water supply.

Last month, the Canadian-based Barrick Gold Corporation announced that it was ready to launch its long-postponed binational “Pascua-Lama” project, located in the Andes Mountains more than 3 miles above sea level and 430 miles north of Chile's capital, in Huasco Province. Barrick says the site likely contains 17.8 million ounces of gold and 718 million ounces of silver. Nearly 75 percent of the minerals slated for extraction are located on the Chilean side and the processing plant will be in Argentina. Production is expected to begin in 2013.

“Pascua-Lama will change the entire development of the Huasco Valley, which is an agricultural, and not mining, zone," warned civil engineer Pablo Schnake, a specialist in water hydraulics and the environment. "Communities will be affected by the heavy traffic with dangerous substances and the potential contamination of the river. It will seriously impact the glaciers, which are part of the country’s water reserves."

The $3 billion project has been under scrutiny ever since Barrick Gold purchased the site in 1994 and presented its first environmental impact assessment (EIA), which included the proposal to break up and move three small glaciers in the area to another location.

(The site of the proposed mine. Courtesy of Barrick Gold corporate website)

The plan prompted outcry from civic groups, environmentalists and local residents, who worried the mine would dry up an important source of water for the 70,000 residents of the Huasco Valley, most of whom make their living through agricultural production. 

Ever since, environmentalists and community groups have coordinated protests with similar organizations in the San Juan province on the Argentine side. A few weeks ago, representatives from several countries met with Canadian lawmakers to discuss what they say are problems with Barrick's operations on several continents. 

The uproar finally prompted regional environmental authorities in Chile to add 400 new conditions on Barrick's plan for the Andes mine — including a ban on moving or destroying the glaciers — before approving it.

For its part, Barrick denies that the bodies of ice are even glaciers. Instead, it calls them "ice reservoirs," and says that the ice is an insignificant source of water for the Huasco Valley.