A Canadian Corporation is Poisoning My Argentinian Community

Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca

We, the people of Jáchal, are fighting for the right to safe and clean water.

Opinion written by Saúl Zeballos, a member of the Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca in Argentina. Originally published on Earth Island Journal on March 7, 2024.

In 2015, hazardous mercury spills from the Veladero open-pit gold mine began endangering our way of life. Since then, we, the Jáchal No Se Toca Assembly, have been seeking justice to protect our water and the health of our people.

The Veladero mine sits on the Potrerillos River at the headwaters of the Jáchal River in the province of San Juan, Argentina. It began operations on October 11, 2005 to produce doré bars (partially refined gold bars) and mercury. Operated by the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, the open pit mine — which is co-owned by Shadong Gold Mining, a Chinese state-owned company — uses cyanide to extract minerals in the middle of the Andes Mountain Range.

The mine is close to the Jáchal Department, a municipality in northern San Juan province dependent on agriculture and livestock production, where 23,000 Argentinians live. For many years, those of us living here received our drinking water from the Jáchal River, which is the main source of irrigation for our farms and of drinking water for our livestock as well. The river also supports the ecosystem in the high Andean wetlands, which is home to a diversity of wildlife, including vicuñas, guanacos, foxes, pumas, and condors.

The Veladero mine has had several major spills since 2015, and as a result of these repeated spills, mercury contamination in the Jáchal River has reached dangerous levels. This is a serious problem that, if continued to go unchecked, will open the door to severe health problems for thousands of people. Exposure to elevated levels mercury, which is a neurotoxin, can have various health impacts including tremors, memory loss, headaches, cognitive and motor dysfunction.

The first spill at the Veladero mine occurred in September 2015. According to the Judiciary of San Juan, a burst valve, 3 inches in diameter, sent millions of liters of cyanide- and mercury-tainted water into the Potrerillos River. Jáchal and the other nearby communities only found out that their water was contaminated because a concerned Veladero mine employee sent out a WhatsApp message. The provincial government and Barrick Gold admitted the spill had occurred six days after the disaster, wasting precious time for environmental remediation.

In 2016, the United Nations Office for Project Services released a report with evidence of the impacts of that spill on the Potrerillos River wetlands, which is downstream from the Veladero mine’s leaching facilities. The Secretary of the Environment at the time, Sergio Loruss, reported seven dead guanacos on the land owned by the mine. The provincial government later fined Barrick Gold US$10 million and temporarily shut down the mine. But the mine soon reopened and has had several more spills since then.


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