In focus: Pascua Lama remains in legal limbo – by Fermín Koop (Buenos Aires Herald – August 18, 2014)

Barrick says project has slowed due to the company’s debts, lower gold prices

With more than US$5 million spent so far in what has long been described as one of the first bi-national mining projects in the world, Barrick Gold continues with its foot firmly on the brakes in Pascua Lama hoping to resolve its legal limbo in Chile as soon as possible while it seeks out new investors to join the project.

Even as Barrick likes to tout the potential benefit of the project for both Chile and Argentina, environmental groups continue to call for the cancellation of the mine’s environmental permits due to the potential risks the project could have on the area’s rivers and glaciers, which they say have already been affected.

“The project has not been abandoned, we temporarily decreased the pace of construction. It was impossible to keep working at a quick pace considering the company registered a US$10.37 billion loss last year and the price of gold dropped a lot,” a Barrick official in Buenos Aires told the Herald. “Plus, the legal issues in Chile led to the suspension of the construction there.”

Located in the Andes Mountains on the border between Argentina and Chile, Pascua Lama is an open pit mining project of gold, silver, copper and other minerals. It contains estimated deposits of 18 million ounces of gold and 676 million ounces of silver, with 75 percent of the deposits in Chile and 25 percent in Argentina.

The project first became possible with the 1997 adoption of the Mining Integration and Complementation Treaty, which allows investors to explore and exploit mineral deposits that straddle the border.

“Pascua Lama has one of the most outrageous stories of the mining sector. It’s like a new country owned by Barrick has emerged in the mountains with special laws and treaties,” Enrique Viale, head of the Environmental Lawyers Association told the Herald. “The border was erased for the company and the only thing missing is for them to create their own flag. They want to replicate this model across the Andes.”

The numerous legal fights with environmentalists in Chile pushed Barrick to stop the construction of Pascua Lama in October 2013 as part of a programme to reduce debt and costs. The company has already spent US$5 billion on Pascua Lama, a figure that could increase to US$8.5 billion after a series of costs overruns.

“A decision to restart development will depend on improved economics and reduced uncertainty related to legal and regulatory requirements. To improve execution and cost control, remaining development will take place in distinct stages with specific programmes and budgets,” Barrick said in its last press statement when reporting financial results. “Barrick continues to explore opportunities to improve the project’s risk-adjusted returns, including strategic partnerships.”

Although the construction in Chile is currently paralyzed, some 300 workers are working on the Argentine side, where the industrial section of the project is located, taking care of regular maintenance tasks.

“The project will eventually restart because it benefits both countries and even the communities that are protesting. I imagine the legal problems will be solved by the end of 2015 and the construction will be finished by the end of 2016 so material can begin to be extracted,” Jaime Bergé, head of the San Juan Mining Chamber, told the Herald. “What happens in Chile has an impact on Argentina.

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