A Ticking Time Bomb: Independent Review Reveals Serious Risks at Proposed Loma Larga Mine

MiningWatch Canada

(Ottawa/Cuenca, Ecuador) An independent analysis of Dundee Precious Metals’ Loma Larga project has revealed serious errors and omissions in the company’s plan for its gold-copper project that could put downstream communities in southern Ecuador at significant risk, including potential for arsenic contamination.

Chief among concerns raised by geo-environmental experts TERRAE in their independent review of the project’s Environmental Impact Study is the high probability of arsenic contamination given the interconnection between the páramo – the high-altitude Andean wetland where the proposed mine is slated to be built – and the groundwater that provides sustenance for tens of thousands of the region’s inhabitants. 

The company’s risk assessment, which was only recently made public following two years of public pressure, rests on the unsupported assumption that there is no connection between the páramo and the groundwater. But according to TERRAE’s analysis, this assumption is baseless. The páramo plays a fundamental and intricate role regulating and recharging the region’s water cycle, providing fresh water for tens of thousands of people, and is key for biodiversity conservation in the Andes. Any contamination from mining activities could quickly spread to the whole region – a real concern given the 5.5 million tons of mine waste the company plans on leaving permanently exposed on  the páramo de Kimsakocha when the mine’s 12-year life is up. 

In spite of this sizable tailings deposit, the company fails to consider scenarios in which high levels of precipitation or a natural disaster like an earthquake could destabilize the tailings deposit, classifying as “irrelevant” a possible tailings failure. According to Julio Fierro Morales of TERRAE, “The climate crisis is already posing new risks for landslides. Classifying as ‘irrelevant’ the consequence of a tailings deposit failure for a project the size of Loma Larga – located in the highest part of a densely-populated area – is completely irresponsible," he says. “Given the serious impacts a tailings failure would have, the Ecuadorian government should outright ban exposed tailings like what’s being proposed for the Loma Larga project.” 

Since acquiring the project and assuming responsibility for the environmental permitting process in 2021, Toronto-based Dundee Precious Metals has continued to downplay the project’s significant risks. In April, the Ecuadorian government approved the company’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the Loma Larga mine, opening the door for the company to obtain its environmental licence and construction permits. However TERRAE’s study concludes that this licence should be denied, given the significant impacts on the páramo ecosystem, the symbolic and spiritual importance of the páramo to neighbouring communities, and the fact that mining is not an activity compatible with land use and traditions in the region.

“The series of omissions, errors, and lack of technical rigour in the company’s environmental study are concerning,” says Viviana Herrera, the Latin America Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada. “Either Dundee Precious Metals doesn’t understand the real risks posed by its Loma Larga project or the company is intentionally downplaying them to get the project approved. Either way, this study just reinforces longstanding community concerns about mining’s impact on the health of the páramo and the life it sustains.”

The Loma Larga project is being advanced against a background of significant government support for mining and major opposition from rural and urban committees. A 2021 referendum in the nearby city of Cuenca resulted in an 80% vote in favour of protecting water and the páramos from the Loma Larga project. This June, the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) led a historic national strike, where a key demand was a moratorium on mining.  

“The independent review of the Loma Larga Environmental Impact Study confirms what we have been saying for two decades and what the mining companies deny when they say we are ill-informed,” says resident of the Kimsakocha páramo Hortensia Zhagü, of the Kimsakocha School of Agroecology. “This study reveals the atrocities that will take place here in our Kimsakocha páramo if we let them.”

For more information or to set up interviews with organizations in Ecuador, contact:

  • Viviana Herrera, Latin America Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada | Whatsapp: +1 (438) 993-1264, [email protected] 
  • Julio Fierro Morales, TERRAE |  [email protected]
  • Jamie Kneen, Canada Program Co-Lead, MiningWatch Canada | +1 (613) 761-2273, [email protected] 

Key documents:

Reactions to TERRAE's study: 

Spanish Fork, Utah, United States: “Although the Loma Larga Project may have some short-term benefits for the local population, the tailings storage facility will remain as a curse on all future generations that will live downstream of the future abandoned project. All future generations will have to worry about the eventual collapse of the dam and the release of the tailings. That worry will end only when the dam does collapse, so that it will be replaced by a different set of worries. 
My recommendation to the government of Ecuador: Do not let this project go forward. If I were consulting for the mining company, I would say the same thing, but more directly: ‘Don't do it.’” – Steven Emerman PhD, Malach Consulting. Specializing in Groundwater and Mining

Cuenca, Province of Azuay, Ecuador: “The independent review of the [Loma Larga] Environmental Impact Study confirms what we have been saying for two decades and what the mining companies deny when they say that we are ill-informed. This study reveals the atrocities that will take place here, in our Kimsakocha páramo, if we let them.”  – Hortensia Zhagüi, Kimsakocha School of Agroecology  

Cuenca, Province of Azuay, Ecuador: “TERRAE’s analysis clearly shows that Dundee Precious Metals’ Environmental Impact Study is tailored not to science, but to the company’s own interests, in clear opposition to the rights we have as residents of Cuenca. It is shameful that the Ministry of the Environment has issued a favorable technical ruling on an incomplete and baseless EIS. Faced with such an affront, Cuenca will know how to defend its páramos, its water, and its dignity – whatever the cost.” – Kléver Calle, member of Yasunidos Guapondelig

Rockland, ME, United States: “Tailings dams are failing with increasing frequency and severity. The consequences of failures can be catastrophic for communities and ecosystems. That is why it is extremely important that any mining project prioritize safety in the design, monitoring, maintenance and closure of a project. It is clear that the EsIA for the Loma Larga Mining Project does not present sufficient information to ensure the stability of its tailings. Deficiencies in the design with respect to water management, precipitation, seismic activity, the contingency plan, among others, mean that this project could present a significant risk to the páramo and to communities downstream of the mine.” – Jan Morrill, Tailings Campaign Manager at Earthworks 

Portland, Oregon, United States: “The Environmental Impact Study presents a distorted evaluation of the páramo ecosystem and the uniquely adapted species that provide vital environmental services. Disruption of these processes will have detrimental impacts and result in irreversible harm to this sensitive ecosystem and many endemic species that call it home.” – Lindsey Zehel, Executive Director at Defend Them All Foundation

 Quito, Province of Pichincha, Ecuador: “The EIA irresponsibly qualifies the risk of a tailings dam failure as ‘irrelevant,’ disregarding the populations downstream of the tailings dam such as Victoria del Portete and the city of Cuenca and a history of tailings dam failures that have left irreparable damage and human losses in Brazil, Canada and South Africa, just  to name a few.”  – David Cañas, Scientific Consultant with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)