The Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy and Nonrenewable Natural Resources informed that a small tailings dam breached in the southern Azuay province, releasing about 50 tonnes of pollutants into the Tenguel river.
The accident was caused by the collapse of a retaining wall at the Armijos tailings station, located in the Camilo Ponce Enriquez area and operated by local firm Austro Gold. The released tailings were carried by a nearby creek into the river that is the source of fresh water for some adjacent farms and communities.
In a media statement, the Ministry said that it has ordered the stoppage of all mining activities at the site. Technical staff are conducting an investigation to determine the sanctions that will be imposed upon Austro Gold.
According to the government agency, lack of compliance with legal requirements by mine title owners could lead to the revocation of the mining permit. “Even if the mining permit is revoked, the former owner has to take responsibility for the environmental damages that were caused, restore the ecosystems and compensate people and communities,” the statement reads.
There are approximately 100 small mining operations in the Camilo Ponce Enriquez area and about 60 of them have tailings facilities, many of which have been built without proper safety standards. To address this issue, the Ministry of Energy is currently working on a set of guidelines that are expected to be followed by mining companies when it comes to the design, construction and operation of tailings dams.
Ecuador is a country rich in gold and copper and since 2008, an estimated 1.8 million acres of the nation’s protected forests have been made available for mining exploration, according to the Rainforest Information Centre.
When it comes to big mining, the South American country has been gaining ground as an investment destination in recent years, with top miners entering into joint ventures or investing in juniors to gain exposure to projects in the country.