Blog Entry

Water contamination at Barrick’s Veladero mine threatens health and human rights

Viviana Herrera

Latin America Program Coordinator

Barrick Gold continues to benefit from the silence of local and regional authorities in Argentina and Canada

Written by Viviana Herrera and Jan Morrill. Originally published in Canadian Dimension.

Communities in northwestern Argentina have been forced to drink bottled water since 2015 and it’s because of a Canadian gold mine. There have been at least five toxic spills in the last seven years of operations at the Veladero mine—located in the province of San Juan, near the community of San José de Jáchal. Independent water monitoring has confirmed mercury levels higher than what’s safe for human consumption and local residents of Jáchal fear that mining activities may have permanently contaminated their water supply with heavy metals.

The Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold has owned the Veladero mine since 2005, selling a 50 percent stake in the project to China’s Shandong Gold in 2017. The two companies now jointly own the project, operated by Minera Argentina Gold SRL in a region known for Canadian mining investment. The large industrial gold and silver mine uses a heap leaching process to extract gold and silver from low grade ore by rinsing crushed ore with a cyanide solution, producing mercury as a byproduct.

In September 12, 2015, a failure in the valve of a heap leach pad pipeline released millions of liters of water contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals into local watersheds, polluting at least five rivers. The spill has been called the worst environmental mining disaster in the country’s history. Despite the gravity of the spill, the community of Jáchal learned about it through a WhatsApp message sent by an employee at the Veladero mine. For days, the company and the provincial government denied the spill—squandering critical moments for environmental remediation—until Barrick acknowledged the spill on September 18 following a request from the ombudsman of San Juan. Barrick Gold was later fined US$10 million for contaminating three rivers with cyanide.

Since then, another four spills have occurred at the mine. Despite these repeated offences, none have been reported by the mine nor the provincial government first. Instead, the surrounding communities have always found out about the spills through informal channels, leading them to consistently call out the company’s lack of transparency and regard for the safety of their water, and demand a permanent closure of the mine.

Devastating environmental impacts

The Asamblea de Jáchal No Se Toca (“Hands off of Jáchal”), was formed in the months prior to the 2015 spill and has systematically documented and denounced the toxic spills at the mine and the response—or lack thereof—from the government and the company. Jáchal, which is 200 kilometres from the mine, has been one of the municipalities most affected by the spills.

The environmental and health impacts are mounting. The mine is located in a periglacial zone, in violation of the Argentinian Law of Glaciers which prohibits mining exploration or exploitation activities in glacial or periglacial areas given their importance as water reservoirs. The Asamblea de Jáchal is concerned about water contamination in such a sensitive area, as well as the impact of spills on local agriculture. There’s fear that everything from peoples’ water, livelihoods, health, and farming lands has been contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals as a result of the spills.

In the context of the climate crisis, the issue of water contamination is compounded by the fact that the province of San Juan is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 100 years. This pressure on water may also soon be exacerbated by another mining project the communities oppose, the Josemaría gold and copper project, just north of the Veladero mine. As it stands, the Veladero mine is also located within the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve, affecting endangered species such as the vicuña, the mountain suri, and the horned coot. As Carolina Caliva from the Asamblea de Jáchal says, “Barrick doesn’t have the right to pollute and create health problems in our communities.”

Because of the company’s lack of action to address environmental harm, affected communities have repeatedly taken part in protests such as a 160 kilometre march in September 2015 from Jáchal to the capital city of San José to demand the closure of the Veladero mine. They have set up a permanent encampment in front of the municipality in the central square of San Juan—which has come to symbolize a “People’s struggle against being sacrificed.” They have participated in peaceful road closures at the mine, a bike ride from Jáchal to Buenos Aires, and have filed multiple legal actions against the company—all in an effort to demand Barrick stop polluting their environment and leave.

According to Argentine law, the mine should not be operating

In 2022, the Asamblea denounced a fifth spill, which the company “categorically” denies. Water samples collected by the University of Cuyo were published by a local journalist and reveal levels of heavy metal contamination even higher than the levels recorded after the 2015 spill. These levels exceed World Health Organization (WHO) and Argentine standards for safe human consumption, with arsenic levels exceeding WHO standards by 33 times, lead levels by 16 times, and aluminum levels by 485 times. As with previous spills, the Asamblea learned about it through informal channels—never directly from the company.

Their struggle is getting the attention of important international bodies. Last month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights sent a letter—co-signed by the Chair-Rapporteur Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises and the Special Rapporteur on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Enjoyment of a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment—to the governments of Canada, Argentina, and China, along with Barrick Gold and Shandong Gold expressing “grave concern about the impact on human rights caused by spills of cyanide, arsenic, mercury and other hazardous substances from the Veladero mine.” The letter underscored how “the lack of timely information hinders the adoption of protective measures for the populations exposed to toxic substances in the spills and the environment” and emphasized that “mercury goes through the food chain, so rural populations, and especially children, could be affected.”

The letter echoes local concerns that Veladero’s mining activities have violated the provisions of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, as well as the Law on Glaciers and the law on hazardous waste. It also points to violations of Argentina’s Mining Code, which states that after three environmental infractions at a mine site—which would include a spill—the company must cease operations. In spite of these laws and the five toxic spills documented, the mine continues with business as usual.

Barrick’s response to the UN follows a pattern of secrecy

Both the governments of Argentina and Canada have acknowledged the UN Special Rapporteur’s letter, respectively requesting more time and “indefinite time” to respond. Barrick Gold sent a lengthy response but—in spite of one of the rapporteur’s chief concerns being a lack of transparency and information sharing with affected communities—asked the UN office to not make the letter public, alleging it could “result in undue community alarm.” In its response, Barrick also alleges that the Asamblea de Jáchal’s “repeated allegations… are biased, not made in good faith, and intended to alarm the residents of the communities located downstream of Veladero.”

Nevertheless, it is thanks to the rigorous documentation by the Asamblea de Jáchal, alongside local universities, that affected communities have learned about the spills and the associated health risks. As Saúl Zeballos from the Asamblea says, there’s a history of “Barrick withholding key information from the public on toxic spills and attempting to minimize their magnitude or impact.”

“We want Barrick to leave”

Barrick Gold continues to benefit from the silence of local and regional authorities in Argentina and Canada, who are taking no action to contain or remediate the harm committed from the spills. Despite this pattern of environmental harm and a history of hiding the spills from those most affected, the company is expanding the mine to extend its life another 10 years.

And while the harms documented here deal with one mine, Barrick’s reputation for causing harm extends beyond Veladero. In the Dominican Republic, communities downstream from Barrick’s Pueblo Viejo mine, specifically its waste deposit, accuse the company of serious environmental contamination resulting in health issues for the local population. Of serious concern is water contamination, and communities rely on bottled water provided by the government for drinking and cooking. Six communities immediately next to the mine are demanding to be relocated to a safer area. In Tanzania, 21 Indigenous Kuria plaintiffs recently filed a lawsuit against Barrick Gold in Ontario courts for violence and human rights violations at the company’s North Mara Gold Mine in Tanzania. The accusations include police violence, killings and torture.

Communities across the world—including in Jáchal, Argentina—are making themselves heard loud and clear. Barrick Gold must operate with more transparency and respect the self-determination of those most affected by their projects.

Jan Morrill is the Tailings Campaign Manager at Earthworks. Viviana Herrera is Latin American Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada.