Former Barrick Gold Worker Testifies About Environmental Violations at Chile’s Pascua Lama Mine

SANTIAGO, Chile

A former contract worker for Toronto-based Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama mining project has testified before the Second Environmental Tribunal of Santiago on environmental violations at the mine site.

The tribunal is hearing a case against the company for environmental damage including “irreparable destruction of glaciers” due to “irresponsible actions.”

The government approved the Pascua Lama project, which lies across the Andean border of Chile and Argentina, in 2006, on condition that it would have no effect on the glaciers.

Claudio Paez Morales, a former contract worker with the Mariano Sierra Alta company, which provided services for Barrick Gold from 2009-2010 told the tribunal he used to work near the Esperanza Glacier and “saw blastings done 500 meters from the glaciers” in the region.

Paez, who is also president of the Livestock Breeders of the Huasco Valley, also testified about “dust suspension” in the region that led “glacier retreat in under two years.” He described the discharge of 600 liters of hydraulic fluid into the El Toro River, a source of water for local residents. The water contamination led to the death of livestock in the area, he said.

Local media described his testimony as “impressive and devastating.”

The legal proceeding will continue this month, with testimony from expert witnesses and the company itself. Groups opposed to the project, including the Assembly of Water of Alto Guasco, the Ecological Committee and Cultural Hope of Life, United by Water, the Diaguita indigenous community, the Huasco Valley Defense Council, the Presbyterian Church of Chigüinto and the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts are hoping for revocation of the project’s environmental permits and complete shutdown of the mine.

Meanwhile, however, an investigative commission on the project appointed by the national congress has issued a final report that is supportive of continuing the project. It did not call for cancellation of permits as expected, and did not conclude that the country’s glacier laws applied to the mine. Additionally, the commission urged adoption of new laws to protect private investment.

The cost of the Pascua Lama project has more than tripled in the past three years, from an initial estimate of $2.6 billion USD in 2011 to some $8-$8.5 billion USD currently, El Ciudadano reported.

Barrick Gold has officially suspended the gold and silver mine project until a water management system can be constructed, in line with a ruling by the Chilean Supreme Court.

The mine, which is half completed, is in Chile’s Atacama region, one of the driest places on earth.

The company had planned to start production in the second half of 2014, but this has been pushed back to 2016.

Within the five first five years of production, the mine is expected to yield 800,000 to 850,000 ounces of gold per year. 

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