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By Javier Rodríguez Pardo
Recall that the mining company Barrick Gold plans to operate in Pascua Lama without mentioning the complete existence of glaciers, at least it had not presented any study. Barrick's reply was to move them.
Barrick Gold Glaciers
"I would not live in Jáchal"
Let us remember that the mining company Barrick Gold plans to operate in Pascua Lama, as it already does in Veladero, without mentioning the complete existence of glaciers, at least it had not presented any study. The concern of Chilean farmers was immediate. Barrick's reply was to move them. As simple as that; using power shovels. Lots of people were alarmed, especially the international scientific community. Jean-Francoise Girard, president of the French Development Research Institute, stated that “from a scientific point of view there is no paradigm that explains the consequences of such a measure: moving glaciers… There are certain
limits that it is better not to exceed… We are precisely investigating the melting of glaciers as a consequence of industrial and mining activity ”. These and other reflections of the French specialist, who signed a contract in Chile with the Catholic University of Valparaíso, are added to those of Dr. Juan Pablo Milana, also required by Chilean professors for these investigations. The studies and deductions of the Argentine expert are part of complaints that are in the courts of the Argentine province of San Juan, questioning the mining activity of Barrick Gold and its negligent behavior with the water and the sources that originate it. I had a long interview with the Argentine expert, who lives in San Juan, father of five children, part of which I reproduce in this second note.
-What led you to study glaciers?
-I am a geologist, but before I went and I am an mountaineer, I always liked the mountains, since I was six or seven years old. So my attraction for the glaciers and for the high peaks was a consequence and relationship between the university career I chose and my Andean vocation. Unfortunately in San Juan, nobody followed this discipline, so when I had to do my degree, my special jobs, nobody could direct me. There were glaciologists in Mendoza but they were physicists, so I started my specialty with fluvial sedimentology, which is the dynamics of rivers, how the flow, the transport of water and sediment is modified and mobilized. In this way I fell into the glaciers, the place where rivers are formed. I did and do glacial sedimentology. By observing the internal dynamics of these arid zone glaciers, you recognize how rivers form, and what is the role of glaciers. You calculate the snow and the river flow but you want to know what happens in between. That hidden "black box". I was passionate about that and I have been working in glaciology and sedimentology for twelve years.
-Did you study the Barrick mining area?
-In the Jáchal river basin we have been doing studies for seven years, in an area adjacent to the Valle del Cura. Long before the big mining companies we were already there. There was exploration by the mining companies, and we already had studies started seven years ago. We have several publications from the Paso de Agua Negra area. From there, to get involved in the issue of Veladero there is a step, because there were a couple of foundations in San Juan that wanted to do a study on glaciers and find out what opinion I had. Before the Fundación Ciudadanos Independientes (FUCI), I advised another NGO in San Juan.
-Tell us how you did it since Barrick prohibits uploading and recording images
- By not having access to Veladero because Barrick forbids it, I began to study the subject more in detail with the images we have. Satellite images are accessible but have a very low definition to detect some ice bodies. They serve to recognize certain features but it cannot be known with certainty, they allow recognition by their features. Luckily I was able to consult the aerial photos of San Juan that are in the Mining Department. Some were disappearing, but thank goodness there were some photos and I did the survey with a good amount, so I made the report that today is the basis of the FUCI complaint in the courts of San Juan.
-So you were linked by a professional contract
-I got involved for the love of the mountains and Knowledge, with a capital letter. I didn't actually charge anything. I did it because it interests me, because I have given a lot of time of my life to glaciers, and I did it without resources. In San Juan, I traveled much of the mountain range and on foot. For example, to study the Cordon de La Ramada, we spent more than 20 days up there. That is to say, what Gioja did on horseback (José Luis Gioja, current governor of San Juan, made a journey on horseback with great publicity), we did on foot, because we had no resources.
– We, who?
-I mean my Andean friends who have supported me, and still do. Get into the glaciers at 4,500 meters; you have to climb and climb all heavy equipment, heavily loaded backpacks, thermal tents, technical items and spend the night on the glacier. I have many mountaineering friends and they help me in my studies and research.
-Do you know many glaciers?
-Yes, most of the larger glaciers in San Juan, and many other smaller ones. Many glaciers that I visit don't have names and I don't like to name them, of course sometimes when I do a job I have to give them a name. That speaks of the lack of studies of these systems, 10 years ago we proposed to make an inventory of glaciers, but there was no funding for it.
-What can you tell us about the Veladero glaciers?
-In the Veladero protocol (impact area), there are several types of glaciers: there are six or seven discovered glaciers, but covered (the ice is not visible) there are many: we recorded about 48 rock glacier bodies. They are smaller, all on the Argentine side, but very important. Always on the Argentine side. On the Chilean side, I have not studied them yet. In terms of definitions, there is no clear boundary between covered and uncovered. A stable body of ice is not a glacier: the Gröenland ice sheet is not a glacier, it is an ice sheet, the same in Antarctica. The glacier has very well defined properties: matter enters from above (snow), ice forms, slowly flows under pressure, and matter leaves below as water.
-Does a team of specialists accompany you?
-Yes, in addition to having advanced students, some in full thesis. At this time, with geophysical equipment we are studying 6 or 7 glaciers. We have a group of highly variable people, but there is always a very dynamic group of several students. When one student finishes, another starts with the thesis.
-Are you worried about other things about this Veladero project?
-In the environmental impact study that these people did (the consultant "Knight-Piesold" who works for Barrick Gold) I read almost 100 pages on geology and the Environmental Impact Report (IIA) does not stop surprising me, because there is not a single data from rock analysis. Not a single total rock analysis. I'm telling you as a geologist, the work they did scares me. What is the real composition of the ore to be exploited and what is the bargain, which one will go to the dumps, what is the washing potential ...? Because the dumps will receive snow that "percolates" and all that will be washed away chemically, and nobody knows it because it was not studied.
-Do you really think they ignore it?
-The report is very poor. The information is not given. They have the composition of that rock but do not publish it in the report. To study the minerals, to know about the deposits, you must know all this that I mention and that the IIA does not say. I think they have the information, it is impossible for them not to know it, but they do not say it.
-In the presentation of the Environmental Impact Report in Chile is it the same?
-No. With Chile there are notable differences. As you well know, it is a binational project; the maps are supposed to be the same. But it seems that Chile protects water resources much more and irrigators are pushing for better water quality. Barrick's Chile report is better done. Apparently a glaciologist who knows the site now does it. But that is after the claim to CONAMA made by the trans-Andean farmers.
-What is the study that makes that difference with Chile?
-There are certain things that are at least evaluated. Water is produced by a process of energy absorption. The darker the surface, the lower the albedo and the more energy it absorbs. Dust from mining activity is deposited on ice bodies, and that ice increases albedo and this increases absorption; at least in Chile a model of dust generation and dust distribution was made over glaciers. Barrick minimizes the effect on glaciers, but at least on the Chilean side they presented something, on the Argentine side, nothing, they presented nothing. What is mentioned in Pascua Lama's report are two paragraphs. Two paragraphs. That is alarming. There in Chile, something was done with respect to the ice bodies, in Argentina they are ignored. What was mentioned here about glaciers are two paragraphs. In Chile they wrote hundreds of pages dedicated to glaciers. What should be investigated in Chile is whether the reports are trueBut at least work has gone into ice studies. In Argentina, nothing.
-After what we know, can we believe them?
-Evaluate the impact, CONAMA told them. So in Chile they had to present something. They did it this year, in April, but based on monitoring that takes several years. At the request of CONAMA, they are trying to “inform” what the impact will be on the glaciers that are going to intervene. They refer to those three glaciers Toro I, Toro, II and Esperanza that are going to transfer them to a fourth glacier named Guanaco. They say nothing about rock glaciers. But in that April report (which is public and the government makes it available on the web) there is a new mapping that talks about permafrost and also mentions rock glaciers. That is the report presented in Chile, on this side, absolutely nothing.
-Do you think a glacier can be moved without affecting it, without destroying it?
-If the glacier is there, it is because nature found a place for it to function successfully well, an ideal place for it to form as a glacier. But I'm going to explain something that happens in this mountain range that is very arid. One problem is sublimation, which is the ability to go from ice to water vapor. When there is a lot of wind, there is a lot of solar radiation and the air is very dry, the sublimation is very high; All accumulation models in this area of San Juan indicate that glaciers could only exist from approximately 6,000 meters of height. So, these glaciers should not exist at 4,000 and 5,000 meters, but they do exist, and it is due to a condition of the terrain, protection, local circulation of winds, micro meteorological factors, and other factors that allow the accumulation of snow to be seen favored. That condition is not always achieved and even less that balance, and to think that they are going to carry the ice and that the "glacier" is going to survive in the new destination, somewhere else, is utopian. Much more snow falls than you might think, but it evaporates or is blown away by the wind, or it melts into place and the ground absorbs the snow. A glacier presents a balance with the environment that is achieved through millennial evolution.
-It seems that these people, Barrick, have treated us as inferior beings, with their environmental impact reports, is that correct?
-They have probably taken advantage of the ignorance of some administrators. Since it is evident that those who have evaluated the environmental impact reports are somewhat ignorant on these issues that concern us. One of the complaints we make to them is for fraud. Because they really have the economic capacity to study these things. And you can see the permafrost when a machinist goes and opens a path and meets this frozen ground (which is much more difficult to move than common); day by day the driver is uncovering ice. And when they drilled a hole to cubic a mineralized body, type Filo Federico or Amable, they had to do hundreds of holes; they have to go through permafrost, less when there is rock, of course.
-What can you tell us about rock glaciers?
-The glacier must comply with the loading and unloading condition. Because the glacier has a dynamic regime: material enters from above, leaves from below; in short, it is being renewed. Many rock glaciers are generated by successive avalanches, snow and rock, and as there is accumulation of snow on the slopes, the avalanches with rock fall, the snow melts and some ice remains, the rock protects part of the ice and thus they pile up layers of ice and detritus and a rock glacier is formed, which then flows plastically, to more temperate heights where the ice melts, and which is often the water that comes down from the mountain range.
-Are there rock glaciers in Pascua Lama?
-In Atacama (III Region) there should be many rock glaciers. You don't see much snow or ice, but the water runs down to the Pacific, and thank goodness because it makes fertile very arid areas. Sometimes it can also be spring water, but these rock glaciers are very common in high altitude and arid regions. Most likely, the seasonal snow will melt and some will flow down the drains, while some will remain as a reserve in the cold soil layers of the permafrost. In this sense, rock glaciers are very good accumulators of ice within their intergranular structure. Remember that up to 6,500 meters high, snow melts by direct effect of solar energy, but if it has a layer of rock, the ice survives inside because the rock acts as a protector. We are studying a glacier called El Tapado that offers these characteristics.
-You cross the border through the Paso de Agua Negra, practically between glaciers. The path of Agua Negra cuts a rock glacier, a small one, that can be seen clearly, you pass the limit and you see it (El Tapado). In the glacier we are studying, the uncovered ice begins and further down the covered glacier follows and finally ends as a rock glacier. You don't see the ice, but you appreciate all the detritus deformed by the advance of this plastic mass that evidently has a frozen core. This place is the best demonstration that all these varieties of glaciers are part of the same: they are three types of glaciers in one. These rock glaciers connected to other more typical glaciers are called glacigenic, and those that are not related we call cryogenic. We go slowly in our studies because we do not have funds to work on these projects. We do it to our lungs, with our own resources and for the love of what we do.
-Which side of the mountain range is harmed the most?
-At the height of San Juan, in Cordillera Enramada, the water productivity is higher. Water productivity is related to height and average rainfall. In addition, the humidity comes from the Pacific. At the height of Jáchal the basin is not smaller, but the mountain range is lower and the rainfall is less. Chile at the height of Jáchal has more water in relation to the size of its basins. But damage can suffer both basins, no doubt. The important thing, I think, is to know what kind of damage can be generated and to be aware that this development carries some side effects. The destruction of the landscape is something that naturally seems to be accepted, but that the people who live in the environment should have an opinion on it. For this reason, the initiative they had taken in Calingasta should be applauded and supported by all. Nobody has the right to come to your place of residence and litter you. Unless they consciously accept it. A good example is England, which accepted that they deposit atomic waste in the Irish Sea (between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland) in exchange for cash.
-There is a package of 20 laws that is scary and we have already talked about them. Together they allow accepting limited controls and measuring environmental impacts in mining without any rigor. In San Juan, mining companies are even exempted from Public Hearings. Mitigate is the most used word.
-However, of the laws you mention, which deliver the national patrimony, the reliability law is the most perverse, in reality it is a special contract that stipulates the reliability and confidentiality of the company.
-And Barrick is an autocrat at the top of the Andes with the Binational Treaty in hand.
-Yes, because there are laws, contracts and resolutions, which keep secrets from all of us, which prevent us from knowing about the consequences of this or that thing that companies do. This confidentiality law prevents us from asking, prevents us from knowing what they are doing above us, over our heads. I mean the environment in this case. As an Argentine I feel very offended, that vital information is hidden from me for my survival and that of my children. They are murderers, in the sense that they do not realize that without detailed and serious studies the effect of some environmental maneuvers cannot be known. And even with serious studies, the unforeseen happens. It is incredible that the government is paying an entourage of researchers, it is not known why, because they rarely consult us. Very different from what I saw in Germany. Here it is preferred to pay consultants because that way they can get their 15%.
-Do they commit genocide?
-I think so, and I am deeply concerned about information on water, for example. They have an obligation to give us that information and allow us to study it. Who do they think they are, omitting information? Many more elements are transported in water than by any other agent and it leaves more residual effects. For example, there are elements, such as arsenic, that easily "travel" in an oxidizing environment, but our body is internally reducing, so they stop traveling and remain residents. Many of the heavy metals behave like this, mercury, lead, etc. and that abound in the mountain range. Then problems ensue, usually some variety of cancer. It is a slow murder for those who consume that water.
-The same will happen with regional economies and crops ... -Regardless of the exports that may be affected, I care about my five children who live in San Juan. The apple that is exported chemically pure will be a benefit, but the greatest benefit is that our large family (our society) consumes healthy internal products, because it is essential to protect the quality of life of those we consume here, our future, health and well-being. I care about us. When we really think about improving or preserving our quality of life, we will be seen much better internationally. Let's start by being demanding about our own health, and the rest comes in addition. Fruit that is good for a Scandinavian is good for us too.
Now the problem may be in Jáchal, which is a problem that naturally always had but that could increase. The Las Taguas River comes with a lot of natural contamination, with the maximum amount of arsenic, and that can be increased by mining exploitation and much more by natural leaching and the waste dumps generated by exploitation. As the years go by, the damage will increase. With those perspectives, and the lack of information, frankly, I would not live in Jáchal. www.EcoPortal.net
* (Second note on glaciologist researcher Juan Pablo Milana and his questioning of Barrick Gold projects in the San Juan province and in the Third Region of Chile).
San Juan, July / August 2005 Javier Rodríguez Pardo