Barrick’s cyanide solution spill five times larger
Company’s own new figures show leak had been massively underestimated
The amount of cyanide solution that spilled from Barrick Gold’s Veladero mine in San Juan province is almost five times more than previously believed, the company acknowledged yesterday as a second federal prosecutor moved to investigate national and provincial officials and mining executives amid growing environmental concerns.
By Barrick’s own estimates, approximately 1,072 cubic metres (1.072 million litres) of cyanide solution made it into the Potrerillos River, due to a valve failure and a sluice gate being left open on September 12.
Previous upper estimates of the spill had been in the realm of 224,000 litres. The Canadian multinational chalked up the revised number to the pinpointing of the approximate time of the valve failure, believed to be around 8pm. The cyanide solution is used to leach gold from processed rocks, a common method for the extraction of gold from ore.
Despite the revised estimate, Barrick insists the spill will not lead to any health risks for area residents.
As a reference to understand the magnitude of the spill, Olympic-sized swimming pools have a volume of 2.5 million litres.
Cyanide leaching operations have been put on hold due to a judge’s order since the spill,and the company is currently in the process of carrying out upgrades to the mine to ensure that another spill does not take place.
At this time though the company has yet to determine why a sluice gate that should have been closed was left open. That failure allowed the cyanide solution to bypass emergency pools and to enter the Potrerillos River.
A court-ordered investigation has established that the water supplies for the surrounding towns are safe to drink but the tests are still ongoing and it remains to be seen if aquifers have been contaminated.
While Barrick employees continued to appear before San Juan Judge Pablo Oritja yesterday to give testimony over the incident, the company and the officials who authorized its activities came under more judicial scrutiny yesterday as federal prosecutor Ramiro González agreed to open a criminal investigation following a complaint by environmental lawyers.
This second investigation, separate to the probe launched by federal prosecutor Federico Delgado a day earlier, named Environment Secretary Sergio Lorusso, Mining Secretary Jorge Mayoral, San Juan Environment Secretary Domingo Tello, the president of the San Juan Mining Chamber Santiago Bergé and the leadership of Barrick Gold Argentina as persons of interest.
González, who is also the head of a specialized office handling environmental issues, went further than Delgado and requested that all of the licences and approvals issued by the San Juan Mining Ministry be handed over to investigators as well as the details of all of the contingency measures put in place to prevent spills like the one that took place on Veladero.
González also requested confirmation from the national arms control body that Barrick has the appropriate permissions to use explosives for mining purposes.
Federal Judge Sebastián Casanello must now decide whether to approve those requests.
On Tuesday, Delgado requested that Guillermo Caló, Barrick Gold Argentina’s executive director, be summoned to explain what happened during the incident and the risks posed to human health. Delgado also indicated that an investigation must begin to determine if the provincial and national executive branches played any role in the eventual wrongdoing.
Delgado’s requests must be approved by Federal Judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgi before any Barrick executives or public officials can be called to make depositions. Although the investigation that has begun is criminal in nature, nobody has yet been charged.
At press time last night, Barrick had not specifically commented on the prosecutor’s requests, but it did repeat that it was willing to cooperate with authorities and the courts.
The Senate’s Environmental Committee, meanwhile, took the unusual step of travelling to San Juan province yesterday to take stock of the incident. The committee is chaired by Proyecto Sur Senator Fernando “Pino” Solanas (Buenos Aires City) and and he was accompanied by various opposition senators. None of the committee’s ruling Victory Front (FpV) senators travelled to San Juan.
“We have come to San Juan to hear from residents the truth about the cyanide spill” said Solanas, adding that “none of the senators that are here are running for office. We have come because there was an accident and it is our responsibility as legislators to respond to people’s needs.”
On Tuesday, Oritja said samples taken from Blanco and Jáchal river basins were cyanide free and safe.