More than just costs are a concern at Barrick Gold’s $8.5B Pascua-Lama megamine – by Catherine Solyom (National Post – December 16, 2012)

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Pascua-Lama, on the border of Chile and Argentina — Standing on a precipice 5,200 metres above sea level, the air is thin and the vistas are long.

Just breathing is difficult at this altitude, with a howling wind disturbing the utter, majestic silence of the snow-capped Andes mountains, threatening to blow you over the edge. You’d think you were alone at the top of the world.

But what happens up here in Pascua-Lama, where Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold is developing the first open-pit gold mine to straddle two countries, will have a huge impact on the people living in the valleys below on both sides of the border — for better or for worse.

After more than a decade of intense debate — often played out in front of the Canadian embassies in Santiago and Buenos Aires — the mine is set to open in 2014, and to produce 850,000 ounces of gold a year, as well as vast amounts of copper and silver.

Up to 10,000 people, many of them from the villages closest to the mine, will be employed during the construction phase and another 1,650 will operate the mine for at least the next 25 years.

Those numbers don’t include all the people hired to feed and clothe those living at the summit camps as they work day and night, summer and winter, in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees Celsius to minus-40.

To the spinoff effects, add the myriad contributions the company is making in the name of corporate social responsibility — from schoolbooks and adult education programs to providing dentists and digging irrigation canals — and you can see why the Barrick logo has come to replace local government emblems on so many billboards and buses.

But critics, local and in the faraway capitals of Buenos Aires and Santiago, fear the project — located in virgin territory amid glaciers that feed several rivers below — could also wreak long-term environmental havoc if chemicals make their way into the river systems or the glaciers are damaged.

According to Barrick, the mine will use up to 38 tonnes of explosives a day to blast mountaintops into rocks, then up to 27 tonnes of cyanide and 33 million litres of water per day to extract the gold.

Some critics, like the mayor of Vallenar, Chile, who was once a miner himself, said it’s not safe for anyone to work with heavy machinery and toxic chemicals at that altitude, where winds can gust up to 300 kilometres an hour and rock falls, electrical storms and avalanches are a danger. According to Lucio Cuenca, director of the non-governmental organization Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), at least 14 workers have died on the Chilean side since 1997, when exploration at the mine site began in earnest, several from accidents when their vehicles rolled over, one in a rock fall and five who froze to death. Barrick would not provide figures or details on the deaths at the mine site.

More recently, the Chilean government ordered Barrick on Oct. 31 to suspend pre-stripping at the mine — blasting off the very tops of the mountain peaks that don’t contain valuable ore — out of concerns workers were breathing in too much noxious dust. Work has not yet resumed.

In the longer term, opponents worry about what will happen to the villages, deep in South American wine country, if the glaciers melt or the rivers they feed are contaminated or simply run dry.

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