The Pascua-Lama Mining Project Threatens Glaciers

Fabiana Li, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba, brings new insight to a long-standing conflict over a South American mining project in her recently published article “Moving Glaciers: Remaking Nature and Mineral Extraction” on Sage Journals. Li’s article investigates the controversial Pascua-Lama mining project, located on the border between Chile and Argentina, run by Barrick Gold, a prominent mining company from Canada. The project gained recognition because of its plan to move three glaciers located at the mining site, disturbing the integrity of the glaciers in the region. Ongoing debate over the site’s future and expenses led Barrick to abandon the project in 2013, but controversy over the future of the site continues.

“The Pascua-Lama project is still in limbo,” Li said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Like other mining companies recovering from the downturn in the metals market, Barrick is now looking for partners for a joint venture in order to mitigate the risks involved in the project. The company has already spent $8.5 billion on Pascua Lama, so it is not likely to abandon it entirely, but it will not be able to continue operating as before, without a new approach to community relations and environmental issues.”

The Pascua-Lama project first ran into trouble when dealing with the glaciers that surrounded the ore deposit, notes Li. In the company’s initial environmental impact assessment, they disregarded the glaciers’ existence. In 2001, the company decided to include the glaciers in the environmental impact assessment by creating a section called the “glacier management plan.” The plan stated that Barrick would move 10 hectares of glaciers with bulldozers, front loaders, or even “controlled explosives,” if necessary, to an adjacent area outside of the development. This plan was approved by the Chilean authorities in 2001.

Outlined borders of the Pascua-Lama project area (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

However, the company’s proposal to move the glaciers was met with animosity from environmental organizations, local residents of the Huasco Valley (a region in Chile located below the mine), representatives of the Catholic Church, Diaguita indigenous communities (who claimed the land as their own), and local and foreign activists. Li told GlacierHub that she tried to show in her article how glaciers, mountains and rivers are more than just resources. “They make up people’s sense of place, their identities, and ways of life,” she said. “They form part of important relationships that people forge with their surroundings and that sustain life.” Communities in the Huasco Valley, for example, protested the glaciers’ removal, arguing that they are dependent on the water supply for agriculture and drinking, with the glaciers storing water for the dry season.

During the 1990s, there was a boom in companies investing in exploration and extraction from countries in South America like Peru. As of 2013, Pascua-Lama was thought to own one of the world’s largest gold and silver resources. Barrick first began exploring the Chile/Argentina border in 1994, searching for possible mining opportunities. It was not until 1997 that both the Chilean and Argentinian presidents signed the Mining Integration Treaty that allowed mining development along the mountain ranges. The treaty granted access to economic activity, foreign property ownership, and water and resources. The Pascua-Lama project also became the world’s first binational mine, creating an example for other projects and developments to follow.

One of Barrick Gold’s sites in Pascua-Lama (Source: Barrick Sudamerica/Creative Commons).

In 2004, the company released an environmental impact assessment, which diminished the importance of the glaciers once again, calling them “ice reservoirs,” “ice fields,” or “glacierets.” One of Barrick’s top executives even denied that there were any glaciers at all. Scientists and researchers hired by the company, such as those at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Aridas (Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones) and the Centro de Estudios Científicos (Center for Scientific Studies), stated that snow and ice features identified “are of very small surface area and it is not clear from the images whether they would be classified as névés, glacierets or glaciers.” They defined the term glacieret as an ice body “formed primarily by blowing or avalanching snow, which usually shows no surface signs of flow.”

In 2006, the assessment was approved under the condition that the company “only access the ore in a manner that does not remove, relocate, destroy, or physically interfere with the Toro 1, Toro 2, and Esperanza glaciers.” Barrick modified the size of the mining pit and claimed that the three “ice fields” were outside of the mining pit limits and wouldn’t be touched.

Community groups protesting against the Pascua-Lama mining project (Source: The future is unwritten/Creative Commons).

Mining construction resumed in 2009, but inspectors soon found that the company neglected their water management plan, which affected the Estrecho glacier and environmental mitigation strategies to protect the glaciers, such as plans to reduce the amount of dust from the site over the glaciers. Chilean government inspections confirmed the company’s negative impact on the glaciers, rivers and wetland systems, resulting in the project’s closure.

According to a local paper, Diario Financiero, the judgement authorized the “temporary closure of Pascua-Lama mining operations, without having the necessary measures in place to ensure the physical and chemical stability of the water sources affected by the project.” Barrick’s continued disregard for environmental regulations resulted in a $16 million fine, the highest possible fine under Chilean law, according to Li. Originally, the company estimated the mining project would cost $3 billion, but this estimate increased after additional costs were added, including from legal battles and additional fees for not abiding with environmental regulations. The project was officially halted in 2013 after the Supreme Court of Chile suspended the project due to the company’s environmental wrongdoings.

Due to complications with the Pascua-Lama project, Argentina created a law in 2010 that prohibited mining and oil drilling in glacier and peri-glacier areas to preserve its water resources. Additionally, Argentina started a national glacier inventory, so that the government and companies are able to identify where mining projects can and cannot take place. Barrick also signed a memorandum of understanding with 15 indigenous communities in Chile to open a dialogue, although there have been no updates on whether or not the project will resume. In the end, the Pascua- Lama project provides an important example to all sides. “This conflict helped to raise awareness about the consequences of resource extraction and inspired people to speak out against mining in a country where this industry has long been considered the backbone of the economy,” Li said. “Pascua Lama also helped make glaciers more visible, and brought to light new issues that had not been addressed.”

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