Science on Trial at Pascua Lama

Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin
Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin

Chile’s environmental court ruled on Monday that Pascua Lama, the Andean nation’s most controversial mine, is not responsible for damage done to three glaciers near the mine site.

While the mine’s operations will remain suspended due to a variety of other challenges, the decision was a setback for local environmental groups, who seek to protect the country’s glaciers. Some say it also represents a defeat for Chile’s scientific institutions.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2013, was brought by farming communities in the Alto del Carmen region of northern Chile, who depend on water from the glaciers, together with NGO Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). Alto del Carmen sits in the Huasco Valley, an oasis at the southern end of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. The suit alleged that dust from Pascua Lama, which straddles the border with Argentina, accelerated melt at glaciers in the area, depleting waters that feed into the El Toro river.

Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360
Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360

In a statement (translated from Spanish), OLCA noted that in its decision, the environmental court ignored scientific documents produced by the state’s own scientists in favor of scientists hired by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the company that operates the mine. Though the court recognized that dust from the mine had settled on the glaciers, it did not accept scientific arguments made in a final state environmental rating resolution on the mine, or RCA, that indicated one millimeter of dust could accelerate melting of the glaciers by as much as 15%. An RCA represents the final outcome of the environmental impact assessment process.

The case seemed to bear out the findings of recent research published in Science and Culture, which suggest that Chilean scientists and scientific institutions have little power in policy debates despite efforts by Chile’s democratic government to build them up over the past decade and a half, post-Pinochet.

“Legally there is this ongoing debate over these resolutions, called RCAs,” said Javiera Barandiaran, assistant professor in global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the paper. “How much legal weight do they have vis a vis the law? In the past, there have been challenges, that these resolutions should become the law, the legal standards that the companies are held to. But they say, ‘No, all we’re held to are permits and the country’s laws.’ Because there is no law, it doesn’t matter.”

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid March, Chilean authorities put forward a proposed framework for a glacier protection law, but it was unclear what specific protections it would offer to glaciers outside Chile’s national parks like the ones affected by Pascua Lama.

Controversy over the Pascua Lama mine is what first put glaciers on the map for Chilean authorities, according to Barandiaran, and launched the debate over the need for laws to protect them.

The Pascua Lama decision inspired a renewed call for strong glacier protection laws from the Chilean branch of global environmental organization Greenpeace.

“If today the environmental court couldn’t credit [the mine] with destruction of the glaciers, having concrete evidence in hand, then we urgently need a law that protects and conserves glaciers,” said Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun in a statement. He added that Barrick Gold is still charged with glacier damage by Chile’s environmental enforcement agency, the Superintendencia de Medio Ambiente (SMA).

Run by Minera Nevada, the Chilean subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama still faces numerous environmental, legal and administrative challenges. Among other things, Barrick is waiting to hear from the SMA about fines that could total over $200 million.

Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar
Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar

Barrick said the decision confirmed the findings of its own scientists. “Barrick worked with leading independent experts and glaciologists to develop and implement one of the most rigorous glacier monitoring programs anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Flores, Barrick’s Executive Director for Chile in a statement, available on the company’s website. “We are pleased that the court has confirmed what the technical and scientific evidence demonstrates, that these ice bodies have not been damaged by activities at the Pascua-Lama project.”

The controversy is far from over, but for now Chile’s political and business elites seem to have the upper hand when it comes to competing claims over scientific truth.

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