Chile’s Pascua-Lama mine legally shut down, but mining exploration continues

Straddling the border of northern Chile and Argentina, with operations in both countries,  the Pascua-Lama copper and gold mine project sits in a rust-colored area of the Huasco Valley in the Andes.

The extraction of gold and copper on the amphitheater-like tiers of this open-pit mine has the potential to damage glaciers and pollute and over-extract waterways that have been used by local populations for millennia.

After more than two decades of legal challenges and public protests, Chile’s First Environmental Court has ruled that Barrick, a Canadian gold-mining company, must close the Chilean portion of its Pascua-Lama mine. Despite this unprecedented win for those concerned with the environmental impacts of mining, Barrick continues to investigate the surrounding area for potential projects.

On September 17, 2020, the First Environmental Court ordered the definitive closure of the Pascua mining project and fined Barrick over $9.7 million. The company faced 33 total charges, including contaminating the Estrecho River without informing nearby communities and inadequately evaluating the mine’s impact on Andean glaciers.In between three gray mountain ranges are two green and vegetated valleys with buildings and trees.

Alto del Carmen, Chile, which receives water from the Pascua-Lama area. Source: Alturas Oceania on Flickr

The Estrecho River is a significant tributary of the Huasco River, which is one of the few sources of water in the Huasco Valley region of the Atacama Desert. Glacier-fed rivers such as the Estrecho are vital sources of water in the region, important for household consumption and for the irrigation on which local agriculture depends.

The road to a full legal conclusion was a long one. In 1994, Barrick bought a company that had been exploring the area’s mining potential. In 2006, the Chilean and Argentinian governments approved the Pascua-Lama project despite burgeoning protests in the region and a popular email petition that cited potential harm to the Huasco Valley river basin.A crowd of people carry a black banner that reads "No a Pascua-Lama" in white letters.

2007 protest against Pascua-Lama in Chile. Source: “the future is unwritten” on Flickr

Just as Barrick’s multinational operations impact people around the world, the response to its actions spanned continents — Canadian protestors and non-governmental organizations also got involved. Kirsten Francescone, the Latin American Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, an organization that monitors Canadian mining companies and their impact on communities, told GlacierHub why it is important for Canadian groups to hold mining companies accountable. “We maintain that Canada is a safe haven for mining companies,” said Francescone “They set up in Canada because there’s very little regulatory oversight. Canada is basically a tax haven for the extractive industries.”

The mine also garnered international attention because it sits in the UNESCO San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve in Argentina, initially established in 1972 to safeguard the endangered and highly valued vicuña species. This site was created to protect diverse local ecosystems and communities, as well as the glaciers and waterways that provide them with water.

In 2013, after years of costly construction, the mining project was put on hold following a petition from the Diaguita Agricultural Community of the Huascoaltinos, an Indigenous community living near the mine. This petition cited numerous instances of poor waste management and over-extraction of water from nearby glaciers and Estrecho River tributaries during construction. This opposition was joined by other Indigenous groups, such as the Aymara, who protested at the Canadian Embassy in the Chilean capital of Santiago in June 2020. Other community groups, organized to protect the region’s water, also took part in the campaign against Barrick.A river runs through a green valley in between rust-colored and snow-peaked mountains.

Diaguita farms in Chile. Source: Ignacio Abé on Flickr

During construction and exploration, the company drilled thousands of exploratory holes into the ground. These holes disrupted the groundwater filtration process, which naturally filters toxic metals out of the water that reaches the surface, and allowed contaminated groundwater to enter nearby rivers. The mining process also requires vast amounts of this water to process copper and gold ore.

The Diaguita farmers’ lawsuit against Barrick also argued that scientific evidence has shown that dust from mining can accelerate glacial melt. The court controversiallyfavored the findings of Barrick’s scientists, who claimed that increased glacial melt from mining debris could not be proven.

Following the project’s temporary hold in 2013, Barrick began a full revision of the project. In 2018, the First Environmental Court ordered the mine to close, but a court-accepted challenge from Barrick against this ruling in early 2020 allowed the mine to stay open and operational. It wasn’t until the September 2020 court case that the court finally ordered Barrick to shut down its Pascua operation.

Barrick accepted the court’s ruling, but their executive director for Chile and Argentina, Marcelo Alvarez, said in a statement that the company would continue to reevaluate the project and other potential mining opportunities in the region. It was reported in late November that Barrick has already begun investigative drilling in the area.

Even though this area could one day be mined, the closure of Barrick’s open-pit Pascua mine is a huge milestone for environmental activists that are fighting harmful mining operations worldwide. Protests against the mine have also brought glacier protection to the attention of the public and the Chilean government.

This mine and the years of legal debates have sparked a lasting and prominent debate in Chile between investing in mining and prioritizing glacier and waterway health. Thanks to years of protests and legal challenges, this mine has been shut down for the foreseeable future and attracted global attention to environmental mining abuses and those who protest them.

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