Santiago, Chile -- T.O.-based mining giant Barrick Gold will move mountains - literally - to get to buried treasures of silver and gold. But three glaciers?
The controversial Pascua Lama project, which many fear will toxify river systems north of the Chilean capital, is the latest example of Canuck firms mucking with local ecosystems abroad in ways they'd never be allowed to do at home.
But that may all change for the Barricks of the world beginning this week in Vancouver. There, mining companies, the feds and environmental groups sit down for the first of five cross-country round tables to discuss a mandatory corporate code of conduct for Canuck mining companies operating outside Canada.
The ultimate goal, says Catherine Coumans, a spokesperson for Ottawa-based MiningWatch, is legislation that will make it easier to sue Canadian companies here for eco trangressions elsewhere. "Management decisions are being made here and finances are being repatriated here," argues Coumans. "Companies should be held to account."
Existing codes of conduct, she says, are strictly voluntary and include no consideration of human rights. For example, the ethics code of the Export Development Corporation (EDC), an arm's-length agency of the federal government, is weaker, critics say, than those of even the World Bank which is not exactly a model and U.S. export credit agencies.
Opposition groups' only recourse is a complaint to the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) but that org has no investigative or sanctioning powers. 0MiningWatch wants a mechanism that goes beyond just hearing complaints, perhaps through the establishment of an international ombudsman's office, to ensure that the standards companies practise at home are followed abroad as well.
In the case of Barrick's Pascua Lama project, Chile's National Commission for the Environment initially paid no attention to the fact that the company planned to remove 300,000 cubic metres of ice from three glaciers the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza to get to the gold deposit.
It was only after farmers and other indigenous groups with land claims in the region held numerous protests, including in the capital, that a review was undertaken.
The fear among locals is the effect the proposed mine, an open pit, will have on streams, the sole source of water for farms in the region 660 kilometres north of Santiago.
True, Barrick plans to build a water treatment facility and retaining wall to hold waste rock collected during the mining process and prevent contaminants from leaking into surface and underground water sources.
The company has been working with the Farmers' Water Management Council and has, says Fernando Gonzalez, the council's president, agreed to meet monitoring requirements to reduce the potential for accidents.
"At our request,' says Gonzalez, "Barrick will build a larger water reservoir that holds raw water before it goes through the treatment plant and is then returned to the river."
But Antonia Fortt, an environmental engineer for the Washington D.C.-based Oceana Foundation, says, "The treatment of the water will never return the purity of water to the rivers, because the Chilean norm is lax when compared with the Canadian standards."
Barrick has recently been ordered by the Region of Atacama Environmental Commission not to touch the glaciers. The company says it's willing to forgo an estimated 1 million ounces in gold buried under the glaciers (the mine is expected to produce 17.2 million ounces).
But Fortt points out that there's nothing preventing Barrick from burrowing underground to get to the gold.
And the company is only offering qualified assurances. Toronto-based vice-president of corporate communications Vince Borg tells NOW that Barrick will "try to work within the framework of the agreement."
Borg says any fears about the mine affecting water quality have been stirred up and are not based on fact. "Frankly, there has been too much discussion of the glaciers from activists."
Fortt and others who remember Barrick's El Indio mine disaster, when cyanide and arsenic from tailings destroyed sections of the Elqui River in 95, point out that Chile's Environment Commission has a history of ignoring the transgressions of mining companies. Barrick has also shifted gears on Pascua Lama. The project was approved in 2001 but was then delayed because of weak gold prices. Now, all of a sudden, it has gotten bigger, spilling over the mountains into Argentina via a partnership with American mining giant Homestake.
Tomas Mosciatti, who heads the nation's largest privately run news network, says the situation has only been aggravated by Chile's economic crisis and a pro-growth agenda that has led to the relaxation of eco standards.
"The government looks away," he says. He points out that there are some 400 mining operations in the Atacama region, employing 12,000 miners, but only two government inspectors.
Rodrigo Rojas, former head of the region's environmental commission, responds that "the conditions we imposed on Barrick Gold give us the protection for sustainable development."
But there are still those who think the fix was in for the project.
"This was a sham," says Mirna Inostroza, who heads up the Huasco Valley Defence Council and has a small farm in the interior of the valley where she grows traditional medicinal plants and runs a small eco-tourism business. "Mining is not environmentally friendly. That is a concept that miners invented."