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.

Copper Versus Ice: Chilean Mine Would Excavate Five Glaciers

Glaciers neighboring Chile's Andina mine. (©Cristobal Hurtado, please contact the photographer before using)
Glaciers neighboring Chile’s Andina mine. (©Cristobal Hurtado, please contact the photographer before using)

The glaciers of Chile are threatened not just by global warming, but by mining operations high in the snow-peaked Andes cordillera.

On July 24, Chile’s state-owned copper mining company Codelco, the world’s largest producer of the metal, proposed changes to a controversial $6.8 billion expansion of its Andina mine. Whether the new proposal gets the green light from environmental authorities could determine the fate of 26 glaciers in the central Andes, which form a watershed that supplies drinking water to the 6 million Chileans living in the country’s capital, Santiago.

Activists were not impressed. “Nothing has changed. Andina 244 will continue destroying glaciers,” Greenpeace Chile wrote in a response. In March, Chilean Greenpeace activists declared a “Glacier Republic,” a sovereign state covering 23,000 square kilometers of glaciers in Chile that already has over 15,000 “citizens,” to push adoption of a law to protect Chile’s glaciers. And on Sep. 27, two thousand people, many of them children wearing superhero costumes, marched to the presidential palace La Moneda, in Santiago, to urge president Bachelet to write glacier protection laws.

The site of Andina 244, Codelco's proposed expansion of its Andina copper mine. (©Codelco)
The site of Andina 244, Codelco’s proposed expansion of its Andina copper mine. (©Codelco)

The revisions to Codelco’s project, dubbed Andina 244, came in response to concerns voiced by environmentalists and local authorities in more than 2,000 public comments on the project. But those revisions would do little to alter the mine’s direct impacts on the glaciers.

Codelco had planned to remove six so-called rock glaciers to get at copper ore under the earth; opponents also charged that dust from the project would damage 20 visible ice glaciers that extend along the cordillera. Under the revised project, the range of the open-pit mine was shifted so that it will require partial removal of five rock glaciers instead of six, but the difference in total area is negligible: 89.94 acres instead of 89.97 acres. Codelco also announced that its own research, completed at the request of government authorities, showed that dust from the expansion would not accelerate melting at the neighboring visible ice, or white, glaciers. (Typically, little or no ice is visible at the surface of rock glaciers.)

At least one scientist found flaws in the company’s modeling: Alexander Brenning, a glaciologist from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, who has spent many years studying Chile’s glaciers, said Codelco’s wind field data does not match data from meteorological stations in the area, which could skew its calculations of particle dispersion rates. Dust and particulate matter are known to accelerate melting of glaciers given that they darken the glaciers’ surfaces, causing them to absorb more heat from the sun. “You find subtle contradictions. According to their models, dust from their mine won’t affect white glaciers, but anecdotally they mention that you can sometimes see dust clouds from neighboring mine Los Bronces,” he said.

In the revised project, Codelco also proposed measures to protect water resources: it would recycle 65% of the water used at the mine and inject fresh water directly into a nearby river to compensate for loss of glacial meltwater. And the company promised to study and preserve glaciers that feed the area’s major rivers—Mapocho, Maipo and Blanco—over the life of the project, through 2058.

Rio Mapocho at Yerba Loca (“Crazy Herb”), a protected nature sanctuary. (©John Bankson)
Rio Mapocho at Yerba Loca (“Crazy Herb”), a protected nature sanctuary. (©John Bankson)


For the Chilean government, weighing water and ice against copper makes for a complicated calculus. Codelco is 100% owned by the state and provides 14% of the government’s revenues, making it a major lifeblood for the country, one of South America’s strongest economies. According to Codelco, Andina 244 would also generate 18,000 jobs over the next six years. The expansion of the mine is part of a larger revamp at Codelco that is apparently needed if the company is to maintain its position as the world’s number one copper producer. Profits were down by almost a third in the first half of this year due to a slide in global copper prices, according to Reuters. (Profit margins, though, are a very generous 40%.)

Some 31,000 glaciers span the Chilean side of the Andes cordillera, which represent 82% percent of all glaciers in South America. Among these are thousands of rock glaciers, which are quite different from the glittering blue ice sheets and jagged crowns and slopes of translucent white that most people associate with the term. Rock glaciers are glacier-like formations consisting of angular rock blocks, between which glacier ice is packed, but not visible. They are just as important to water reserves as white glaciers .

Santiago with the Andes mountains towering behind it, Spring 2013. (©Armando Lobos)
Santiago with the Andes mountains towering behind it, Spring 2013. (©Armando Lobos)

Despite a lack of good laws governing the country’s glaciers, Chilean authorities do have some bite when it comes to protecting them. In July of 2013, a Chilean court suspended the operations of Pascua Lama, a mine run by Canada’s Barrick Gold, after indigenous communities were able to prove that the company had damaged glaciers near the mine, violating its environmental permit.

“Environmental awareness in Chile has been increasing over the last 20 or 30 years,” said Brenning. “NGOs are getting stronger, and the environmental thoroughness with which different government bodies involved examine those projects has been increasing over the last decade, in particular the glaciology group of the Chilean water authority.”

A march in defense of water, partially in protest of Andina 244, on April 26, 2013 in Santiago's Parque Almagro. (©Rafael Edwards)
A march in defense of water, partially in protest of Andina 244, on April 26, 2013 in Santiago’s Parque Almagro. (©Rafael Edwards)