UN letters express concern about impacts on local population’s health and environment
By Gabriel Friedman, Financial Post
Canadian miner Barrick Gold Corp. is once again under fire for its environmental track record and relationship with local communities in the Andes Mountains.
On Tuesday, the United Nations released letters that three advisors to its Human Rights Council — independent experts known as special rapporteurs — wrote in September to Toronto-based Barrick, the Canadian government and others, expressing concern about toxic spills from the Veladero mine in Argentina, which it owns jointly with China’s Shandong Gold Group.
Between 2015 and 2017, mercury and other contaminants were detected in the river system next to the mine, located at high elevation in northwestern Argentina, near the border with Chile. The mine, which uses heap leach processing in which ore is piled on a concrete pad and rinsed with cyanide to extract gold and silver, was linked to three spills and Barrick paid millions of dollars in fines.
Afterwards, the spills appeared to stop. But in June the Financial Post reported that members of nearby communities and local journalists leveled accusations of new spills of mercury and other heavy metals into local waters, in 2021 and 2022, citing data collected by scientists at a university in Mendoza.
The UN special rapporteurs’ letter to Barrick characterized the accusations as “sufficiently reliable” and expressed concern about the impacts on the local population’s health and to the environment.
“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express our 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 states. “The lack of effective response by your company exacerbates these impacts.”
Still, Saúl Zeballos, who lives in San José de Jáchal, a community of 21,000 about 200 kilometres downstream from the mine, said he blames Barrick for breaking its promises to protect the local water supply. He added the company has not met local expectations of providing jobs.
Zeballos said Barrick never alerted the community to the original spill in 2015, which he only heard about informally through connections in the community. Since then, everyone has been drinking bottled water, but continue to use the local water for cooking and washing despite concerns about the health impacts, especially for their children.
“They need to stop polluting the area,” Zeballos said in an interview during which his comments were translated from Spanish by two translators provided by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada. “They need to leave and leave the area in the same condition as when they got here.”
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