|Barrick turns glaciers to dust and the State applies a measly fine|
by Lucio Cuenca Berger, Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA)
February 2nd, 2011
Over a year ago, during November 2009, the state fulfilled its obligation to carry out an audit of the Pascua Lama project one month after construction began. Alarming irregularities were found, particularly with regard to the protection of glaciers and water, two themes that have given rise to more than ten years of concern and resistance on the part of communities living in the area.
Although its comforting to know that the government found this "responsible mining company" to be acting irresponsibly, it was hoped that a corresponding sanction would be applied immediately and set an important precedent. Those who were most optimistic maintained that given the impacts to the Estrecho glacier (an environmental impact that was not foreseen in the original project), operations should be stopped and a new environmental impact study required.
Far from meeting these expectations, the government waited ten months from the time of the formal request from the General Water Authority for an elevated sanction, and in October, in the context of a reorganized institutional framework, informed the communities that the sanctioning process was in limbo and stalled because the current structure did not contemplate this possibility, so no one could make a final statement. Despite the fact that the government had sent a law to the Parliament (published in the Official Journal on November 13th 2010), which would fill the gap while the Superintendent was put in place, the process against the company remained stalled for another four months based on the issue of interpretation.
In other words, for 14 months the company has been throwing dust on the glaciers (destroying them), illegally taking water, and using heavy machinery in the headwaters of a river. But while this is already a scandal, what is truly maddening, is that at the end of January 2011 the Atacama Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) formally emitted a sanction of 11,300,000 pesos (about US$23,000). What impact could such a sanction have on the pocketbook of a company that in 2005 agreed to pay US$60 million to eight agricultural companies to demobilize community resistance against its operations in the Huasco Valleys?
The mining legislation in Chile does not establish mitigation measures nor compensation for damages. On the contrary, companies can allege to have had their profits affected and take their case to international tribunals. What is left for the communities in this scenario? Is it really worth leaving everything in the hands of public institutions?
The protection of the glaciers, Bachelet's electoral commitment and the condition that the glaciers would not be touched in order to approve Pascua Lama's Environmental Impact Assessment, is not being ensured. Rather, instead of sanctioning the company as it should, the company has to pay a measly fine sending a message to the citizenry, since in formal terms the authorities indicates that the sanction is for not having kept their roads damp and the back of their trucks covered. What does this really mean? It means covering the glaciers with dirt, causing irreversible destruction, and as a result, diminishing the waters of the Valley of Huasco whose communities have repeatedly complained that despite the rains in 2010, there is an alarming lack of water.
Barrick's dust is not only affecting the glaciers, but rather with the miserable fines that the state applies against this million-dollar company, it is also pulling a dark veil over past and present state authorities who allow this multinational company to continue violating the law, contaminating the environment and irreversibly damaging ecosystems that are the basis for many local economies in the watersheds of rivers that begin where their gold operations are taking place.