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Chile: Barrick Gold mine threatens water supply

by Alejandra CarmonaEl Monstrador
April 9th, 2012

Translation of an article from El Mostrador of Santiago, Chile, for April 9. See original here. Like the Cerro Casale project, Pascua Lama is an open-pit gold, silver and copper mine being developed by Barrick Gold of Canada. High in the Andes, on the border between Chile and Argentina, it has sparked considerable protest, in part because of its proximity to glaciers.

Rosa Ahumada says everything was different at one time. That at least the first 35 of her 46 years were different.

“I know a farmer who had an 80-meter well to water his vegetables, but it went dry. He had lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and onions. He used to plant more than 50 hectares. Now he has only enough for 18,” says Rosa as she rushes through the story because, she warns, this is only one of the stories that burden a region that is going dry.

The latest price list Rosa has seen is this: peaches cost no less than 1,000 pesos. Chard costs 500 pesos. Bananas are the cheapest, maybe: 500 pesos a kilo.

Fruit is becoming a luxury item in Copiapó, comments Rosa, president of the Unión Comunal de Juntas de Vecinos of Copiapó.

The problem is water. It was not without reason that the government decided to extend for another six months the water scarcity decree for the Third Region.

Just read this data: the water table in the Copiapó Valley underwent over-exploitation many years ago. “During the decade of the ‘90s and 2000, rights to the water, which now amount to 19.6 cubic meters per second, were sold, while the capacity for recharging the water supply is barely 20% of that figure,” Minister Laurence Goldborne stated last week.

It is for these reasons that the inhabitants of the region are afraid of mining operations and especially of the large project that will go up in Maricunga, 145 kilometers southeast of Copiapó; the Cerro Casale project will use more than 900 liters of water per second in its industrial mining operation. An amount no one can ignore. Especially now.


Cerro Casale is a mining project belonging to the Compañía Minera Cerro Casale (CMC), which consists of operation of an open-pit mine to produce and commercialize concentrated copper and doré metal (gold and silver). The partners in CMC are two Canadian mining companies with international operations: Kinross Gold (25%) and the well known Barrick Gold (75%).

The average investment capital will be approximately six billion US dollars. But it is not these numbers that trouble the region.

The Copiapó River, one of the most important traditional sources of water in the area, has suffered such an important decrease in flow rate that where it passes through the city that bears the same name, it is totally dry.

According to Patricio Pinto, manager for corporate affairs at Barrick, the company is aware of the scarcity of water, especially in the Copiapó River basin, and therefore water will be taken from another source 120 kilometers from the project and outside the river basin. “Piedra Pómez, whose aquifer is not connected to the Copiapó valley, will provide water supply in the operational stage via an aqueduct that will connect the mining installations with the Piedra Pómez area,” Pinto says. CMC holds water rights to Piedra Pómez that were granted by the Dirección General de Aguas. The company also explained that during the construction phase the La Gallina River, located near the project, will be used as the source of water.

Therefore, according to Barrick, all the fears of those who believe the project will affect the river are unfounded.

“The community orders and demands the large mining companies not to use fresh water but 100 % salt water. We are not against the project or against investments but we want it to be done responsibly,” says Brunilda González, adding her harshest complaint: “This is more than a Pascua Lama!” she exclaims into the telephone in her municipal office. “The cyaniding in that case was not on the Chilean side. This project is 100 % on Chilean land. And, besides, it will affect glaciers, and not white ones, but stone glaciers, much deeper and directly related to the more subterranean water layers. Pascua Lama is a suckling babe compared to Cerro Casale.”

Nevertheless, a group of geologists and environmental experts, maps and papers in hand, have another interpretation of the consequences of the project.

“I don’t doubt that the extractive basin is different and quite far from the Copiapó River. Nevertheless, the term ‘basin,’ or even ‘endorheic basin,’ refers to surface conditions of the basins and the subterranean conditions can be very different. Barrick has not shown that it will not affect the Copiapó River basin,” declares Michaela Heisig, a biologist and ecologist from Hamburg Universtiy in Germany. Heisig has followed the matter closely as part of the professional staff of the Econorte consulting firm, contracted by the Municipality of Caldera to study the effects that the mining project could have on the population. The group of professionals also put together the observations of the Municipality of Copiapó and Casub (Comunidad de Aguas Subterráneas), among others.

Another person who has followed the matter closely is Juan Pablo Milana, an Argentine glaciologist who became familiar with Barrick after following the Pascua Lama project step by step. His experience tells him that the population could in fact find itself affected.

“These rights correspond to an endorheic basin. Nevertheless, they also plan to use 0.5 cubic meters per second in the beginning from the Copiapó and that will affect notably the populations in the Copiapó basin, not only because of that use but because of the effects on the water production and storage system.”

Milana relates how this matter has been discussed among several professionals who think that ecologically the only viable alternative is to desalinate sea water and use that in all the industrial operations.

This alternative is being considered by the company but only as a secondary plan in case some problem occurs. This is one of the things that bother Brunilda González, mayor of Caldera. She believes that the mining company’s Plan B should be the first one and thus avoid risks to the population.

The other effects

This is the project’s current situation: on March 6 the company submitted the second Informe Consolidado de Aclaraciones, Rectificaciones y/o Ampliaciones to the environmental impact study, this with respect to the optimization of the project. As seen in the files of the SEA, it is a matter of “improvement in technical, economic, environmental and social terms of the productive processes associated with the exploitation of gold and copper minerals from the original project,” previously approved by Corema (Comisión Regional del Medio Ambiente).

Cerro Casale has a favorable Resolución de Calificación Ambiental for the year 2002 and the modifications to the original project, according to Barrick, are “the result of technological changes that translate into considerable decreases in the environmental and social effects generated by the same (especially in the intervention in the design of the ducts and putting environmental standards into effect in the execution of the project, due to the changes in the environmental norms in effect with respect to the year 2002),” and were subjected to environmental evaluation.

Regional authorities, specialists and Senator Isabel Allende seek to make the process as transparent as possible and keep it within the established period of time.

On February 7 of this year, Allende sent a letter to Environmental Minister María Ignacia Benítez. This is one of the remarks that did not get a reply from the national authority: “An important consideration is that the study recognizes the existence of a ‘deep and diffuse regional aquifer,’ about which no records of evaluation are offered and their direction and flow rate are not analyzed. As a result, the eventual interconnection with the regional basins, especially with that of Copiapó, have not been evaluated, which constitutes a clear defect in the study being offered, because of the importance of its effects on the regional water situation.”

In simple terms, an aquifer is a deposit of subterranean water. In the case of Copiapó, it is a primordial resource.

In addition to the impact the project could have directly on the population, Milana points out other effects impossible to ignore: “There will also be an effect on the ecosystems. To take that amount of water from the Piedra Pómez field is to destroy all the wetlands fed by this permanent flow of water, which feeds several rivers, the Lama River being the best known and attractive in the Tres Cruces National Park. This river runs as far as the plains of Maricunga. It is simple mathematics applied to the hydrology of the desert. The permits were granted without the least ecological study.”


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