Will glaciers be for mining in Argentina what an iceberg was for the Titanic?
An Argentine government body that is mapping glaciers in the Central Andes has released initial results of its national glacier inventory, showing that many of the country’s mining projects sit in glacier-rich areas and may, therefore, be a threat to the country’s future water supply, among other possible ill effects.
Mandated by Argentina’s 2010 National Glacier Protection Act, the inventory is being carried out by the Argentine National Glacier Institute (IANIGLA), an arm of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Using satellite technology supplied by the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), IANIGLA has been tracking glaciers all over the country. Its first findings, however, cover the Argentine province of Mendoza, on the Chilean border.
This week, IANIGLA’s director, Ricardo Villalba, told MDZ Online that there are thousands of glaciers in the Central Andes, and more than 1,600 alone in the relatively small Mendoza River Basin, which includes high-mountain areas. Approximately 60% of these glaciers, which exist above 11,000 ft., are invisible to the untrained eye but detectable via satellites.
“These are ‘rock glaciers’, which are massive ice bodies covered by a thin layer of rock debris,” explains Jorge Daniel Taillant, mining, environment and human rights coordinator with Argentina’s Centre for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), another group which has also been tracking glaciers and supports Villalba’s findings, in a statement sent to media yesterday.
“The non-expert could be standing on a rock glacier and not even know there is ice beneath,” he notes, adding that many mining companies are just learning about underground glaciers. “Finding them is a challenge but is essential in order to protect the ice reserve, which is critical for ecosystem survival in the high and dry mountains of the Andes.”
Villalba, meanwhile, told MDZ Online that because of IANIGLA’s findings, exploration for minerals or oil and gas, is now actually prohibited in Argentina where glaciers are present.
“The law is clear,” Villalba said. “Article 6 of the National Glacier Protection Act states that you cannot carry out any activity that will modify a glacier’s primary function, which is to supply high-quality water. One cannot contaminate glaciers or build anything on them, not even roads, because they are protected.” If glaciers are disturbed, one can also expect further climate change, he added.
Taillant notes that the water contained in the 1,600 glaciers mapped in the Mendoza River Basin amounts to more than 100 billion gallons of potable water. “That’s enough water to supply the entire population of the United States with drinking and sanitation water for nearly six months.”
Both Argentine and international mining companies operate in the country, including Xstrata Copper, Barrick Gold Corporation, Anglo American, NGEx Resources and McEwen Mining. Most of these companies have projects in areas surrounded by hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of glaciers, according to Taillant.
“The Andes are full of ice and as the glacier inventory becomes official, the areas off-limits to mining operations will increase,” Taillant predicts. “It’s estimated that San Juan Province, the most mining-friendly province by far, has over 12,000 glaciers above 10,000 ft., where most of the exploratory mining operations are now underway. San Juan alone has over 100 mining projects in the pipeline that could potentially be permanently stalled by the reality that glaciers are ubiquitous in the area. “
Xstrata Copper, which has a project in San Juan, said in a statement provided to MINING.com that it “takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and adheres to the highest international standards of sustainable development.”
Regarding its El Pachón copper project in San Juan, it says it is located in a periglacial environment. As such, “feasibility update studies and an environmental impact assessment are currently underway and a glacier impact assessment is being undertaken as part of these specialist studies. Our El Pachón Project continues to operate in full compliance with all applicable Argentine laws.”
For its part, McEwen Mining states in a June 27, 2011 news release posted on its website that results from exploratory drilling and glaciology studies found that “no ice glaciers are present in the project area” of its Los Azules copper project, also in San Juan.
First approved by the Argentine Congress in 2008, the glacier protection act was vetoed by President Cristina Fernandez a month later that year. However, in September of 2010, a new version of the act was ratified in the Argentine Senate in a 35 pro, 33 against vote. Barrick Gold is currently seeking to have the act declared unconstitutional and the case is before the Argentine Supreme Court.
With the contribution of Suzanne Soto, owner of Si! Corporate Communications, a Greater Toronto Area company providing public relations services in both English and Spanish.