No water solution for the Pascua Lama Mine

Pascua Lama

There is no mine water solution for the Pascua Lama mine in the high Andes of Chile and Argentina.

Here is one report:

A Chilean court said on Wednesday it has suspended construction of what would be one of the world’s biggest gold mines, accepting a complaint filed by indigenous groups on environmental grounds. The complaint against the project launched in 2009 by Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer, cited concerns over possible damage to a river, according to the ruling by the Santiago Appeals Court, which was seen by AFP and issued Tuesday night.

The unfinished Pascua Lama gold mine straddles the Chilean-Argentine border. The project has seen stiff resistance from environmental groups and local communities. Barrick had expected production to begin in the first six months of 2014. The order suspends construction of the open-pit mine while the court studies the broader environmental issues. The complaint was filed by the Diaguita indians, a small community based in northern Chile. It said that the construction work “has generated a situation of imminent environmental danger” for the Estrecho River.

This report come one the first day of the conference in Lima, Peru on Mine Water Solutions in Extreme Environments.

Here is the abstract of one of the papers to be delivered at the conference on the project–the authors are Lukas U. Arenson, Matthias Jakob, and Pablo Wainstein. of BGC in Vancouver:

Continuing global demand for precious metals and the availability of new extraction technologies render some mining projects at higher elevations and remote areas economic. A good example is the dry Andes in which a wealth of mineral resources can be found. Some mining projects are located within the periglacial environment containing unique landforms such as rock glaciers and gelifluction lobes. This environment is of significant interest given that Argentina has ratified a law that aims to protect glaciers as well as portions of the periglacial environment, with the ultimate goal of preserving them as national strategic hydrological resources.

In this paper the hydrological contribution of degrading permafrost is examined for a small watershed. It is based on several assumptions of climate warming and ground ice content at the base of the active layer. The analyses demonstrate that for an air temperature warming of 4ºC by the year 2100, the average annual runoff contribution is likely within 0.2% of the total runoff measured at the exit of the watershed. If scaled to the main runoff season of January to April, the contribution may reach 0.6 – 0.8%. For rock glaciers, the average seasonal runoff contribution is more than one order of magnitude smaller.

This study, though preliminary, has demonstrated that ground ice contained in permafrost can only contribute to runoff if persistent permafrost degradation occurs due to climate change. In this case, the relative contribution of ground ice melt will be minor at the local watershed scale and immeasurably small at the first point of domestic, agricultural or industrial water use. Assuming that the watershed investigated is typical for many other watersheds in the periglacial environment in the dry northern Argentinian Andes, this work suggests that the hydrologic importance of rock glaciers as a strategic water resource has likely been overstated.

The Chilean court obviously disagrees with the conclusions of the paper—or at least they want more time to study the issues. Maybe discussions at the conference can persuade the court otherwise.

I must compliment Barrick for the courage to allow publication of the paper; particularly in the light of the great controversy surrounding the project.

Another paper at the conference suggests that global warming will affect mining. Here is the abstract of a paper by Edward A. McBean, of the University of Guelph, Canada:

Evidence indicating that climate change is occurring has reached the point where climate change is not a question of “if” but “how much?” Projections suggest potential increases of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius in arid lands over the next fifty years. Projections for precipitation are not so uniform on the global scale, with some areas expected to have more precipitation, while others are expected to have less. However, given the increases in potential evapotranspiration (PET) as a result of the elevated temperatures, the ratios of mean annual precipitation to PET will likely decrease by 4 to 5%, with the result that arid areas are likely to become more arid.

This increased aridity, combined with projections which indicate that extreme rainfalls will intensify, will translate to increased erosion. If the rates of growth of extreme rainfalls increase by 1.5% per year, as evident in some mining areas of Canada, there is a potential for a 60% increase in erosion due to extreme rainstorms. Increased erosion in arid areas will make soil and tailings management more challenging as the world’s climate changes.

At this link, The Globe and Mail present a reasoned analysis of the potential impact of the court ruling on the mine. Here is some of what they write:

The Pascua-Lama gold and silver project straddles the Andes mountain range between Chile and Argentina and is slated to go into production this time next year, if project owner Barrick Gold Corp. can convince an appeals court in the northern town of Copiapo – population 167,000 – that it isn’t polluting the water supplies of indigenous communities. The ruling represents a rare injunction against a mine that has been more than a decade in the making, having cleared regulatory hurdles including environmental permitting in Chile and Argentina. It’s also the latest instance of a Chilean court hearing a complaint against a project already cleared by environmental authorities.

Chile has long been viewed as a miner’s Utopia, complete with some of the richest mineral reserves on the planet as well as one of its most mining-friendly, stable governments, but some say it has become so saturated with projects that its infrastructure is straining at the seams and communities are becoming alarmed. The shift comes amid a growing wave of resource nationalism, which has touched most of the world’s mining jurisdictions.

In fact it is simpler than that. This case is yet another example of the exploding issues of mine and water. Hence the Lima conference and seven more on the same theme this year. Pity is that no matter how many conferences on the topic, the demand that mines do not affect water is going to grow even more stringent and strident. This is but a tiny example of a trend that is going to get a lot bigger.

As I note in my EduMine course on investing in mines: Do not go near the water, i.e., do not invest in mines that may affect downstream waters.

For more from Jack Caldwell, see his blog, I Think Mining

Image:Jack Caldwell

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