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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.

Under the revised plan, the glaciers are located outside the pit's limits. Barrick will comply with the new conditions, said Rodrigo Jimenez, vice president for corporate affairs for Barrick South America. In addition, he said, the company will work with a local university to monitor the glaciers. 

But critics aren't satisfied. “If you detonate 82 tons of explosives in a pit over a mile wide, and lift 13,000 tons of dust into the air every day, can someone please explain how this will not affect glaciers located just meters away?” asked Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA) and a leading opponent of Pascua-Lama.

And to the 5,000 residents of the Alto del Carmen community, who will suffer the direct impact, the glaciers may not even be the most detrimental effect from the mine. They worry about the daily traffic of trucks carrying explosives, fuel and chemicals. The company also plans to use cyanide to extract gold, raising concerns about the handling of the dangerous substance.

“Many in the communities oppose Pascua-Lama because they know the project will endanger the entire valley and their agricultural activity," said Sister Cristina Hoar, a missionary who has lived in the Huasco Valley for more than 20 years, and a leader of opposition to the mine. "But since the company has a lot of money and is offering jobs, it is dividing the community."

The company says it will follow the strictest international safety standards for managing cyanide and other chemicals.

Another source of controversy is a deposit of rock waste (which occurs after minerals are extracted) that Barrick plans to install near the source of El Estrecho river, and which will eventually cover a rock glacier (a solid mass of water mixed with rock and earth under the land surface). Once the rock glacier is covered by the sterile deposit, two things may happen: the glacier may melt and disappear, or the deposits will mix with the glacier and freeze, resulting in a new potentially toxic body of ice.

Barrick denies this will occur. “Based on all the studies conducted by internal and external experts on this subject, no impacts of that sort are anticipated," said Jimenez, who added that the project will include dozens of water quality monitoring stations, in addition to other protective measures.

Despite opposition to the plan, the presidents of Argentina and Chile have welcomed the Pascua-Lama project, hailing its potential to create jobs: 5,500 during the three years of its construction and 1,660 permanent jobs over its estimated 25 years of mine life.

In fact, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile met privately with Barrick executives in April. They agreed not to double-tax the company, among other matters. The two countries signed a mining cooperation treaty in 1997, which seemed custom made for Barrick when the company discovered that the ore body it owned in Chile stretched across the border. 

The company plans to begin major construction on the mine by September. But hurdles remain. Barrick lacks permits for the construction of two reservoirs, and needs to build a model to predict water resources in the project area, according to the General Directorate of Waters.

Barrick already operates two gold mines in Peru and one in Argentina. Until now, it has only invested in copper mines in Chile. In addition to Pascua-Lama, Barrick Gold is now studying Cerro Casale, just north of Pascua-Lama — the company calls it “the world’s largest undeveloped gold and copper deposits."

Chile’s environmental authority, CONAMA, agreed to respond written questions from Global Post, but never did.

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