Barrick Gold Pledges to Stop Killing Glaciers

| Tue Dec. 5, 2006 3:38 AM EST

The largest gold-mining company in the world finally posted a report on the Pascua Lama mine today, as promised to shareholder activists.

The mine was the target of a chain email last summer because the gold is under three glaciers that irrigate an arid farming valley of thousands, high in the Andes, spanning the border of Chile and Argentina. At first Barrick Gold Corp. said it would "relocate" the glaciers to get the gold.

As if global warming weren't enough, these poor farmers also had to worry about their glaciers being relocated. Exactly how remains a mystery. But what's worse is the prospect of tailings polluting the melt water that feeds their crops. The byproducts of one plain wedding band are 5.5 pounds of lead, 3 pounds of arsenic, almost 2 ounces of mercury, and 1 ounce of cyanide, out of 20 tons of waste.

In protest last year, hundreds of farmers dumped chunks of ice at the presidential palace in Santiago, to no avail. The Chilean government gave the go-ahead in February, and this week Argentina will too. No surprise, since mining accounts for a third of Chile's $100 billion GDP and 60 percent of its exports.

A few things stand out in the report, for which the authors reviewed and interviewed only Barrick employees, not locals.

  • The mine will draw 39 percent of the water of the Taguas River. "However, withdrawal points are high in the respective basins where stream flows are relatively small."
  • The design can manage one in 100-year storms and geologic events.
  • Barrick did not hold enough formal public hearings to meet World Bank standards, which it was not obligated to follow because it is not using World Bank funding. But an environmental consultant friend of mine at the EPA said the World Bank's "best practice" standards are what multinationals should follow in developing countries.
  • To avoid harming the glaciers, Barrick pledged to refrain from taking one million ounces of gold. That's 5 percent of the estimated $11 billion yield.


By the way, Barrick hates to call them glaciers, preferring "ice sheets." Barrick apparently named the mine Pascua Lama, which translates to Passover lamb or sacrifice. That's a biblical allusion to the lamb's blood that marked the Israelites' doors to spare them from God's worst plague to Egyptians, death of the firstborn.

Speaking of euphemisms, we reported last month on lead-poisoning by the sweetly-named Doe Run Co.

-- April Rabkin