The expansion of toxic mining and its consequences: the Andalgalá gold mine

The expansion of toxic mining and its consequences: the Andalgalá gold mine

By Dario Aranda

Water not to drink. These are some of the contradictions of Andalgalá, a Catamarca town of 17,000 inhabitants, 240 kilometers from the provincial capital, where the largest gold and copper mine in Argentina and one of the most important in the world has been operating for ten years.

The expansion of toxic mining and its consequences: the Andalgalá gold mine, Catamarca, Argentina

Water not to drink. These are some of the contradictions of Andalgalá, a Catamarca town of 17,000 inhabitants, 240 kilometers from the provincial capital, where the largest gold and copper mine in Argentina and one of the most important in the world has been operating for ten years. The company, Minera Alumbrera, of a Canadian Swiss consortium, is denounced by the residents of polluting the land, air and water. Andalgalá is the third largest city in Catamarca. For ten years there has been one of the most important gold and copper mines in the world. Inhabitants of the place assure that the undertaking did not bring any well-being, they denounce contamination and an complicit State. The company ensures that all its actions are subject to the law. The residents ask for a plebiscite to prevent the installation of another deposit, which will be the most important in America and would multiply the problems.

Water not to drink. The company, Minera Alumbrera, part of a Swiss-Canadian consortium, is denounced by the inhabitants of polluting the land, air and water. Social, governmental and judicial spaces in northwestern Argentina warn that the contamination would affect three provinces: Catamarca, Tucumán and Santiago del Estero, but the biggest disaster - they warn would begin shortly: a new mine, three times bigger, even closer to the town and on the peaks that provide water to the entire region. The Self-convened Neighbors assure that it will be the coup de grace for the people. Therefore, they ask for a plebiscite in the Esquel style.

The Self-convened Neighbors of Andalgalá are teachers, retirees, merchants, construction workers and housewives who learned about chemical formulas, history, extraction processes, environmental laws and tax benefits that companies enjoy. "It's David and Goliath," they summarize from one of the poorest provinces in the country. Opposite are the most important mining multinationals in the world: the Swiss Xstrata (50 percent of the share package) and the Canadian Goldcorp (37.5 percent) and Northern Orion (12.5); the State at its three levels - municipal, provincial and national and a community divided around the company: dismembered families, brothers who do not speak to each other, lifelong friends who are now estranged, merchants who lost customers due to their opposition to mining, neighbors they don't even look at each other. A town where mining, like controversy, affects everyone.

Looting memory

October 1994. CineTeatro Catamarca, in front of the main square of San Fernando del Valle. Governor Arnoldo Castillo; the then Secretary of Mining and current Governor of La Rioja, Angel Maza; Former president Carlos Menem and an executive, tall, blond and assisted by a translator, announced the launch of the infrastructure works of the Mina Bajo la Alumbrera deposit, in front of a hundred euphoric officials and businessmen. "Today begins takeoff, the day dreamed of for this long-delayed province," said the elderly governor with tears. Menem, in a very neat blue suit, was no less: "This is the Argentina that we need, that opens up to the world, that receives investments, that promises a future." The executive of the multinational, assisted by a translator, thanked: "Our investment is thanks to the new laws promoted by the Government, without it we could not have started this work."

Three years later, on October 31, 1997, Carlos Menem flew with his entire cabinet to Andalgalá to inaugurate the extraction stage. True to his style, he was an active protagonist of the first explosion on the mountain and the first grinding. Then came the lavish lunch at the facilities of the same mine, at 2,600 meters, in the exclusive city on the heights for the professionals and workers of the multinational.

Andalgalá was founded on July 12, 347 years ago, and the good memory of mining had always been present. At the end of the 19th century, and until the beginning of the 20th, it was a region that knew well-being sheltered from the extraction of mineral with the system of galleries, on a small scale, with enormous demand for labor, pick and shovel as tools, donkey back for transportation. They were years of development, when Catamarca stood as a synonym for growth; moments recorded in family memories, transmitted to children and grandchildren. Hence the germ of welcome and joy at the arrival of a mining company. "But this time the extraction would be different and the benefits distributed in a different way than last century," lamented Roberto Cecenarro, one of the first opponents of Alumbrera and a pioneer in warning that the honeymoon between residents and the company would not last long.

The advertising campaign of the company and the politicians on duty promised the construction of a neighborhood for 5,000 people, new schools, a highly complex hospital, paved roads, 6,000 jobs. None of those works were captured. The company assures, today, that it employs 1,800 local people and, indirectly, created 8,200 new jobs. The Autoconvocados deny it: they say that no more than 90 people from Andalgalá work in the mine. The rest all "foreign professionals". The mayor, an ally of the company, speaks of lower figures: "It used to be said that there would be a thousand, two thousand, three thousand jobs, but there are no more than 40 or 50 effective Andalgalians."

Aída Orellana, a slim, blond, histrionic and firm-speaking woman, had believed, like all her neighbors, in promises. He invested everything he had, and more, to build a small hotel. He believed that the city would grow, that Alumbrera would give him guests and prosperity. But the rooms rarely hosted visitors. When he realized the deception, he began his militancy against the mining company. "It was all a big scam and they poison us," he says over and over again, shaking his head. She was so committed to the fight that she ended up being estranged from the whole family, who even today continues to blame her for the absence of clients. Alumbrera recognizes that the site has ten years to live and even today continues to emphasize that the venture "is a source of opportunities and economic benefits for Argentina and especially for the communities near its facilities." “He promised to develop the place, buy from local suppliers; But the truth is that they don't buy tomatoes or lettuce for salads from here, ”Orellana refutes.

The Gold and Copper Mine

The gold and copper deposit belongs to the Catamarca state, the University of Tucumán and the national state, which make up the company Yacimientos Mineros de Agua de Dionisio (YMAD), but they ceded the exploitation to multinationals. It works 40 kilometers from the urban area of ​​Andalgalá, 300 from the provincial capital, between mountains and Olympic fences.

Very few can enter the site, which works day and night and where a huge pot two kilometers in diameter and six blocks deep is the space where explosives, 36 huge mining trucks and monumental mechanical shovels remove 340 tons of rock per day. Far are the images of the movies: there are no picks, shovels us, there are gold nuggets and, not even, there are miners.

For each ton of rock, six grams of gold and six kilograms of copper are obtained. Data from the same company boast that Alumbrera uses the same amount of explosives that is required per year throughout Argentina in a single month. It is no coincidence that dust clouds rain down on the city. In addition, specialists warn that the removal of mountains of rocks accelerates the production of sulfides, which with the air and water produce drainage and acid rain, with their pollution in tow.

“Acid drainage represents one of the main environmental problems in mining. These drains occur when sulfide-containing minerals present in the rock are exposed to air or water, turning into sulfuric acid. This acid can dissolve heavy metals (lead, zinc, copper, arsenic, mercury or cadmium) present in the rock and in the residues or tailings to the surface and underground water. They produce serious contamination. Acid drains occur naturally, but are significantly magnified as a consequence of mining. In addition, these drains can travel long distances downstream ”, they explain from Greenpeace.

According to data from the same company, the deposit is among the ten largest copper enterprises in the world (with 190 thousand tons per year) and among the 15 gold ones (with 23 thousand tons). "Minera Alumbrera is the largest individual electricity consumer in Argentina," says the same company on its website. It has hotels for employees and visitors, 500 rooms, a dining room, games rooms, a gym, an internal bus line and three of its own planes that act as an air taxi for executives to Tucumán and Catamarca.

The extraction process consists of dynamiting the walls of the mountain, transforming the rocks into powder and diluting them in acid solutions that purify the mineral. This viscous solution is again purified by a large-scale flotation process. All the waste is destined to a huge garbage dump, 30 hectares and 150 meters high, called the “tailings dam”. The gross product is sent by a monumental mineraloduct - an underground pipe 310 kilometers long that passes through Catamarca to Tucumán. It carries a mud with diluted acid and mineral. It reaches Cruz del Norte, in Tucumán, where the “Tren Alumbrera” (the company has four locomotives and 182 own wagons) transports concentrates to the port of Santa Fe. From there it travels abroad, where it will be refined. The mega-enterprise also has a 220-kilometer busway, high-voltage power lines that run through a large part of Catamarca and Tucumán.

The infrastructure works required an investment of 1,200 million dollars. “Little of this expense is borne by the company: Article 22 of Law 24,196 legislates that from the three percent that the company pays in royalties, the costs of transportation, freight, insurance, milling, marketing, administration, smelting and refinement. In this way, the monumental works are paid for by the State ”, explains Marcos Pastrana, from the Intersectorial de Tafí del Valle, in Tucumán, where they also accuse contamination from neighboring Catamarca.

Ten years later: the accusations

The Tucumán prosecutor Antonio Estofán denounced the company for contamination. The federal judge of Santiago del Estero Felipe Terán investigates a complaint of the presence of copper and lead in the northern province and a possible contamination that would reach the tourist Termas de Río Hondo. Rosario justice investigates the alleged documentary trafficking and illegal export of metals. Residents of Villa Vil, in Catamarca, denounced the company for a toxic spill from the mineraloducuto. Social organizations in Tafí del Valle, in Tucumán, warn about air pollution, radiation from the bus and invasion of indigenous cemeteries. There are only five of the dozens of accusations that Minera Alumbrera has against him, driven by a great diversity of sectors, localities and provinces.

The head of the company, Julián Rooney, responded to the accusations: “There is no contamination of any kind. The important work carried out and the conclusions of the environmental monitoring have served so that the industry can demonstrate its adherence to compliance with environmental regulations. "

The Autoconvocados have been demanding “independent” studies of land and water for years. But the only answers they get are analyzes by the same company or sporadic and selective surveys of the province. They disbelieve these studies because they syndicate the company as an accomplice of the company. “Alumbrera means 70 percent of the fiscal income to the provincial government. Knowing our ruling class, do you think they will denounce their economic supporters? ”Warns Omar Ramos, a local resident.

“The specialists recommend doing follow-ups, permanent studies, lasting months. They don't do any of that. To give you an idea: the land and water studies are not controlled by anyone: the company selects the samples, takes them to the laboratory itself and informs the control bodies of the results ”, denounce the Self-convened.

A technical study involving various sectors was carried out by the mining expert Héctor Oscar Nieva. This is his master's study for the University of Nancy (in France), which confirmed that the tailings dam (the huge pot that acts as a mining dump) has leaks that contaminate the underground waters of the area. The company recognized the losses and installed a back-pump system so that the solution that escapes the mining corral returns to it. Nieva assures that the contamination continues to spread through the Catamarca subsoil. “The problem may be aggravated when the mine closes. It filters into the Vis Vis river and the final destination of all the pollution will be the most important freshwater reserve in the region. There are already animal deaths in the mining company's ecological impact zone. They say they do not pollute, but it is clear that there is something, "said the specialist.

The president of Alumbrera affirmed that “the study by engineer Nieva takes into account partial data and makes extrapolations that have nothing to do with the reality of what really happens, therefore it lacks a technical foundation. On our website you can find a work with the arguments that explain why the conclusions reached by the engineer Nieva are inaccurate ”.

From Greenpeace they assure that “it is evident that mining activities frequently produce short-term economic benefits to communities. But they also produce long-term health and environmental impacts that mining companies often avoid paying for. ”

However, in statements to the newspaper La Gaceta, the Secretary of Mining of the Nation, Jorge Mayoral - who refused to speak with this newspaper, surprised the people of Tucumán and Catamarca by denying that there is an environmental problem linked to mining activity and assured that "some , with mischief, they try to generate uncertainty ”. The Federation of Environmental Organizations of Tucumán did not take long to answer him: "It cannot be that the official is unaware that the activity carried out by the firm not only deserved the condemnation of the community, but also that its main manager is accused of alleged contamination , by the Federal Justice ", agreed the representatives of the entity, Pedro Ottonello and Juan Manuel Prado Iratchet.

In the Calchaquí valleys, the Intersectorial of Tafí del Valle, which brings together the social organizations of the place, declared itself in favor of "no to metal mining due to the serious environmental impacts it causes in the community," said Marcos Pastrana, a referent of the Intersectoral, who remembered that with the towers of the busway, indigenous sacred spaces were invaded. They demand that the zone of the valleys of Tucumán be declared a “protected area”.

Word of mouth in Andalgalá shows that gastrointestinal diseases have multiplied, but neither the local hospital nor any government agency reports any study. Only once, in 2003, were statistics available from the local hospital: they confirmed that, since the installation of the mine and until 2003, respiratory illnesses in children had increased from 1,374 to 2,244. All of them held the mine responsible. Never again were health data of the place disseminated.

"The project was designed following environmental standards equivalent to those required by the leading countries in copper and gold production, and the guidelines established by the World Bank," explains Alumbrera in his presentation folder.

Water, divine treasure

Water is the gold of the future, warn various sectors that even assure that the wars will be for this natural resource. In Catamarca "there is no lack of liquid, but neither is there excess in the gross", smiles Urbano Cardozo, the militant retired. Alumbrera has an extraction permit of 1,100 liters per second. Which is the same at 66,000 liters per minute: almost four million liters per hour in a semi-desert area. "Better not do the account of how much water a day goes with that gold," ironizes Blanca Rado, a retired teacher and student of what large-scale mining entails. Alumbrera has six wells drilled to depth, from which it sucks the groundwater 24 hours a day.

Canada's Northern Orion (Alumbrera shareholder) will shortly begin the infrastructure works of another field, three times larger than Bajo Alumbrera, just 17 kilometers from the town, on top of the mountains located in front of the city center. It plans to mine gold, silver, copper and molybdenum. "The development of Agua Rica is technically feasible, and could be developed as a low-cost, long-life field," acknowledges the letter of introduction from the same company. It plans to process 70,000 tons of rock per day, with a useful life of 30 years.

The Self-convened Neighbors emphasize that, in addition to the same pollution that Alumbrera carries, the three rivers the Blanco, Candado and Minas are born from that mountain, which supply water to the entire region: almost a quarter of the province. Everyone recognizes that this will be the last blow to the people.

The water used is irretrievable. There is no possible treatment to make it profitable again. If the new operation starts up, the amount of water used will be triple. The new mining venture is called, paradoxically or for black humor, "Rich water." Irony of fate, the mine will take three times more than one water.

In 2004, Minera Alumbrera had a turnover of 683 million dollars: 1,980 million pesos. Taking into account the last four quarters (the last two of 2004 and the first two of 2005) Alumbrera paid 51 million pesos in royalties. It is 2.5 of your total billing.

According to the company itself, in its publication "Minera Alumbrera and the Community Community Supplement", the municipality of Andalgalá has just been paid in mining royalties: 14 million pesos. This represents 0.7 percent of the gold and copper that in the last year was extracted from the mountains of Catamarca.

Deputy Marta Maffei visited the area last year and repeated a piece of information: "The ten large mining companies will take 25,000 million dollars of minerals from the country, of which only 380 million will remain in the country."

It is that the money that the mining companies take does not have withholding for exports (as if they pay, for example, agricultural products).

The Autoconvocados are promoting a binding plebiscite before the end of the year, but they know that it is a double-edged sword. In case of reaching that instance, the great unknown is to know what will happen.

Argentina, the spoiled girl of global mining

Esquel, in Chubut, is the pre-mining operation. Jáchal, in San Juan, during. Andalgalá, the after extraction: when the gold is gone and the mountain is a leaky colossus. Only three of the fifty metal mining ventures in Argentina, which have as many promoters as detractors. State and business on the one hand. Social organizations and residents on the other. Promises of investment, work and development on one side. Complaints of environmental degradation, poverty and looting by the other. State of affairs of a silenced controversy.

The country's mining exports have multiplied in the last decade. According to official data from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Mining (Sicym), in 1993 Argentina exported 15.8 million dollars. After the new mining laws were approved, the change was drastic: in 1999, it was 705 million; in 2001 of 754 million, in 2002 of 990; 2003, 1,100; and the projections for 2006 are 1,466 million.

According to the same official data: metalliferous minerals such as gold, silver and copper represent two-thirds of the exported volume of the so-called “mining boom”. "The menemato laws are seductive: they are environmentally and tax highly beneficial for companies," explains Marcos Pastrana, from Tafí del Valle.

The legislator Carlos Tinnirello, who specializes in the subject, assured that “the mining companies have just started the invasion in the country, but the projections of the same companies indicate that a great invasion of companies awaits us. And, of course, this type of undertaking can never be developed without political commitments from the governors and the national executive, who listen a lot to the mining companies but very little to the populations who warn about the risks, especially the watersheds that are they compromise ”.

“The mining companies manage the media, the municipalities, the provinces, even the highest officials. They exert harassment on the populations that oppose and deceive, promising a well-being that will never come. Meanwhile, the executive, legislative and even judicial powers are at the disposal of companies, which always have political and legal gadgets at hand to achieve their ends. We must be aware that it is about the looting of the country's natural resources ”, denounced Tinnirello.

In the luxurious hotel in Toronto, Canada, where the World Mining Congress was held, all the prominence specialists fixed their eyes on Argentina and classified it as "the spoiled girl" of the sector. They remarked that the star of the moment has 5,000 kilometers of mountain range, 75 percent of its unexplored resources and a gift of only three percent. Multinationals from the United States, Canada, Australia, Chile and Europe pointed to Argentina as the region to invest and Latin America as the destination of the decade. They do not stop setting the advantages of current legislation. At the international mining mall they were, together with the Secretary of Mining of the Nation, Jorge Mayoral, governors and mining authorities of San Juan, Mendoza, Catamarca, La Rioja, Salta, Jujuy and Santa Cruz.

After the mining fair, the Secretary of Mining traveled to Washington to meet with the head of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Enrique Iglesias, who promotes mining as "development for the entire region." “At the request of the Minister of Federal Planning, Public Investment and National Services, Julio De Vido, Mayoral met with Iglesias in order to evaluate support plans to promote mining activity in Argentina and promote the sustainable development of small and medium-sized and large mining ”, reported the official press release of the Secretariat.

In that congress, the state mining company YMAD - owner of the Alumbrera deposit offered international companies a set of "areas rich in copper, gold, silver and molybdenum, of Catamarca". In a commercial review titled "YMAD, A Great Opportunity," the company explained to multinational executives: "New reserves have been littered and an ambitious drilling plan has been developed. There is an area with gold, silver and manganese structures ”.

The 2004-2005 Biannual Plan of the National Mining Secretariat insists that Argentina has greater opportunities than other regions due to the “rethinking of tax and legal frameworks” that it has (the laws of the 90s).

From the Chamber of Mining Companies (CAEM) they advertise that the sector exports almost as much as wheat. But there are three radical differences: agriculture, despite its industrialization, employs much more labor; it has withholdings on exports (for every ton that leaves, a percentage remains in the country) and, above all, the land suffers degradation, but that can be treated; while minerals are a non-renewable resource: what goes away does not come back. It is an unproductive, impoverished area - already without its mineral wealth and contaminated

Tailor-made legislation

"Mining laws are beneficial, to the extreme, for companies," summarizes from the Network of Communities Affected by Mining, which brings together the inhabitants of San Juan, Chubut, Córdoba, Tucumán, Río Negro and Catamarca. While the original domain of the resources corresponds to the provinces, they (owner of the mineral) cannot collect more than three percent of the international sale price of the metals. But at that three percent the companies deduct the costs of transportation, freight, insurance, milling, marketing, administration, smelting and refining. "The multinationals do not have export withholdings, they must not liquidate foreign currency (the money from their sales to the country does not enter, everything goes abroad), they do not pay taxes on gross income, nor on fuels (which everyone pays when naphtha), no stamps, no import taxes; They deduct double expenses for the purposes of income tax, in the first five years they do not pay national, provincial or municipal taxes. For example, they do not pay income tax or gross income. They do not pay VAT or taxes for the entrance of machinery ”, they explain from the Community Network. In addition, they enjoy fiscal stability for 30 years. That is: any modification - for example: the tax on the check, which all Argentines pay, does not affect them. Euphemistically they call it: "Reliable mining regime".

Self-convened neighbors of Andalgalá Edgardo Salas 0383515520051
Mariana Bettanin 02944429441

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