After visiting the site in San Juan Province that saw a major cyanide-solution spill last year due to a gold mine company’s technical negligence, Environment Minister Sergio Bergman stated that the mine responsible for the spill may possibly have to close. This would be an important victory for environmental activists and could set a precedent for other international corporations whose activities on Argentine soil have been less than environmentally friendly, but would mean the loss of thousands of jobs.
“We have to prepare for the possible closure of the mine,” Bergman told San Juan Province Governor Sergio Uñac, according to press reports.
As a brief recap: in September 2015, a valve failure in the Veladero mine, which belongs to Canadian gold mining company Barrick Gold, caused 1 million liters of cyanide solution to spill into the local Jáchal River. After denying anything was amiss for a number of days, Barrick Gold representatives finally owned up to the fact that cyanide had been spilled and submitted to the necessary inspection. Finally, last month, nine company executives were found guilty of “negligence and incompetence” and fined US $56,000. The official study that supported the court ruling found that “the waters of the Jáchal River are contaminated with metals in doses of up to 1,400 percent above the tolerable human exposure values.”
“We don’t want more cases like Barrick,” said Deputy Eduardo Cáceres, who heads Mining Commission in the national Chamber of Deputies.
The government is still waiting to hear from the results of a study from the Argentine Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA) which will determine the full impact the cyanide spill had on the local environment, which is characterized as “periglacial” (meaning close to a glacial landscape). Argentina’s Glacier Protection Law prohibits the contamination of such environments, considered vital national resources.
Even though the spill has caused big problems for the community, mining operations there are crucial to the economy. Shutting down the mines would translate to a loss of 4,000 jobs, so some workers have marched in defense of Barrick.
The Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation is the largest gold mining company in the world, with operations in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Zambia and the US, among others. In 2014, the Veladero mine in San Juan produced 722,000 ounces of gold.
The company’s environmental record is far from squeaky clean: in May 2013, it was fined US$16.4 million by the Chilean government for failure to comply with environmental regulation in its Pascua Lama operations, one of the largest gold and silver resources in the world located in the Andes between Chile and Argentina.