Ten days ago, the Federal Chambers of Tucumán in Argentina brought criminal charges of environmental contamination against Julián Rooney, Vice-President of Bajo La Alumbrera, Argentina’s largest mining operation located in Catamarca and Tucumán. Rooney is free, but his possessions are impounded, and the company will appeal the ruling to the Court of Appeals, and possibly to the Supreme Court. This is the first ruling in all of Latin America against a mining company for crimes against the environment.
Alumbrera is the largest, oldest and most profitable open-pit metals mine in Argentina. Located in the northwest province of Catamarca, Alumbrera moves 120 million metric tons of earth annually to produce an average of 160,000 tons of copper, 600,000 ounces of gold and other metals in form of a mineral concentrate, or slurry. Alumbrera is joint-owned by three of the largest metals mining transnationals: Xstrata, Goldcorp and Yamana Gold.
The ruling has sent shock waves through the mining industry in Argentina and throughout the world, leading the Argentine mining association CAEM to issue a statement claiming that the ruling will paralyze an economic sector that “generates jobs and high-paying salaries.” Not only is Alumbrera on trial for contamination, but also under scrutiny for tax evasion, corruption and contraband. And called for questioning as presumed accomplices in the contamination are local and national government officials including Secretary of Mining Jorge Mayoral.
The ruling is a product of a complaint filed ten years ago by citizens groups and biologist Juan González, Secretary of Environment for the Province of Tucumán. They discovered that Alumbrera was dumping millions of litres of toxic liquid wastes into DP2, a canal used by animals and farmers alongside the Alumbrera pumping and filtration station in Tucumán. González ordered a series of tests, and the Provincial Health System (SIPROSA) found lead, cadmium, copper, selenium, mercury, cyanide and arsenic above legal health limits. A claim was filed in 1998 against Alumbrera for violating the laws in Argentina’s National Constitution which regulate toxic waste emissions.
Alumbrera’s Chain of Operations: Contamination and Desertification
Like every modern mine, at the Alumbrera open-pit in Catamarca, mountains are exploded and ore is removed, crushed and leached with chemicals to produce a thick, metal-rich slurry. The slurry is pumped 140 miles through a pipeline over a 8,000 foot mountain pass to the province of Tucumán, where the slurry is “dewatered” and liquids simply dumped in canal DP2 in Tucumán, headwaters of the extensive Sali-Dulce river basin. The dried “mineral” is then carried by train 450 miles to Puerto Alumbrera on the Paraná river near Rosario, Argentina, and shipped to overseas plants for the extraction and foundry of gold, copper, silver and other minerals within.
Alumbrera’s extensive “chain” of operations involves multiple river basins and five provinces. In the twelve years since Alumbrera began operations, the operation has become notorious for the enormous plume of contamination released at the many points along this chain of operations. More ominous still is the large-scale regional desertification attributed to Alumbrera’s operations: The project consumes between 60 and 100 million litres of water a day pumped from depleted water tables, to return contaminated directly to river systems and aquifers.
Over the years, as contamination increased, community pressures grew. However, the case languished in the corrupt and inefficient Argentine justice system. Alumbrera continued to produce Environmental Impact Reports every two years, many times even reporting levels above legal limits. The impunity that Alumbrera enjoyed was compounded by economic hardships facing residents of Catamarca and Tucumán, as "Big Mining" companies such as Barrick Gold, Xstrata, Goldcorp and dozens of others bought off politicians and carried out well-moneyed social insertion PR campaigns while creating a corrupt political system based on patronage to mining interests, while small groups of environmentalists and dedicated officials were marginalized for their opposition.
However, two years ago, spurred to action by complaints from citizens, new Tucumán District Attorney Antonio Gustavo Goméz resurrected the case. In a way it came late, years after a series of fish die-offs in 2001-2004 left the Sali-Dulce river system entirely dead. In recent months, environmentalists pushing the courts to take action were threatened as “terrorists” for their advocacy. But they succeeded: on May 30, Tribunal judges finally voted 3-1 to press criminal charges against Alumbrera.
But at the mine, production never stops. After twelve years of continuous operations, Alumbrera’s pit is enormous and declining ore grade means the company is literally "running the mine into the earth" by increasing volume and tonnage mined, in order to maintain mine "productivity.” Alumbrera runs two shifts of workers, operating day and night, every day of every year. Increased production means more energy and water use, and generates more waste and contamination. The mine and tailings had been constructed on a complex system of fault lines, and the unlined tailings reservoir permits heavy metals infiltration into water tables. The mineral pipeline is aging, and has ruptured repeatedly throughout its 140 miles.
What will happen?
Alumbrera’s ecological damages are by and large “irremediable” and will require treatement in perpetuity. But when the mine closes in five years, Alumbrera (Xstrata, Goldcorp and Yamana) is not obligated to clean up or pay for restoration costs: Due to agreements signed by the government and Alumbrera in 1996 responsibility for cleanup will fall upon local authorities. The Argentine state is clearly unable to handle any form of environmental oversight, maintenance and restoration on the scale of Alumbrera.
Catamarca is a beautiful desert province of northwest Argentina, with mountain ranges, deserts, and verdant oasis valleys. Runoff from snow-capped peaks and underground aquifers once supplied small-farmers throughout the region with pure mineral waters for their crops of fruit, nuts and vegetables. These lands are now dried up and waters undrinkable, contaminated with heavy metals. Family farms have dried up, leaving poverty and creating a culture of exclusion and dependency. The town of Andalgalà in Catamarca is emblematic of the social and ecological conflicts brought on by Big Mining: Miners live in gated communities, while common citizens cannot drink the tap water and schools and health systems languish, and the corrupt mayor just spent $40,000 of municipal to pay Nobel laurate Joseph Stiglitz to speak at a conference in support of Big Mining.
The problem won’t end with Alumbrera: This is just the first of a series of mega-mining projects under exploration and construction in the region. Residents are bitterly fighting Yamana’s Agua Rica mine, to be located some 40 km from Alumbrera will be three times larger and draw from the same depleted water tables. It is one of dozens of projects slated for Catamarca’s new mining “Sacrifice Zone”.
Throughout Catamarca, citizens are taking to the streets to halt these mega-mining operations: residents of Aconquija blockaded roads to protest ruptures of the mineral pipeline; in western Catamarca, Tinogasta residents blockaded Alumbrera’s which carry explosives and chemicals from Chile and return laden with contraband mineral, and Alumbrera’s “blue train” has been repeatedly blockaded by Santiagueños. Argentines are learning that perhaps the key to stopping contamination and plunder is by applying pressure all along Alumbrera’s chain of operations. Citizens of other countries, especially USA, Canada, and Switzerland can and should support the people of Argentina in their struggle.
For more information, here are some key contacts:
- No a la Mina www.noalamina.org
- Mines and Communities www.minesandcommunities.org (English)
- Asamblea Socioambiental de Catamarca blog http://asambleasocioambientalcatamarca.blogspot.com
- Aconquija.blog http://aconquija.blogspot.com
- Belen resiste blog http://belenresiste.blogspot.com
- Tinogasta blog www.tinogasta-catamarca.blogspot.com
- OLCA www.olca.cl/oca/index.htm
- Oro Sucio www.orosucio.madryn.com
By David Modersbach
National University of Rosario, Argentina