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(June 26) A TV news report last week revealing drastic destruction of glaciers near the Pascua Lama gold mine project prompted the Chamber of Deputies to call for an inquiry into the mining project.

Pascua Lama is owned by Canadian-based transnational Barrick Gold and straddles the Chilean-Argentine border in the Andes mountain range. The project has provoked strong local, national and international criticism since its inception and during his recent global warming visit to Chile, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore refused to allow Barrick Gold to sponsor his trip. Critics worry about the Pascua Lama project's environmental and social impacts (VT, June 10).
Chilean environmental authorities approved the project last year, but on the condition that the three glaciers sitting atop the mining site –Toro I, Toro II and Esperanza— not be damaged. This meant that Pascua Lama had to ditch its plans for an open pit mine and opt for ore excavation by way of tunnels.

But a report released by the General Water Directorship (DGA) in 2002— but generally unknown until mainstream TV Channel 13 publicized the findings last week—reveals that the three glaciers had already been reduced by 50 to 70 percent during the project's exploratory phase due to work done by the company.
According to the report, Barrick Gold removed snow and put down sand in glaciers Toro I and Toro II to build a road. In glacier Esperanza, the company made perforations in 150 sites to analyze the mineral composition of the rocks below. This work left the glacier covered in powder. As Latin American Environmental Conflicts Observatory (OCLA) director Lucio Cuenca explained, a millimeter of powdered material on the surface of a glacier has accelerates its melting by around 15 percent.
Barrick Gold representative Rodrigo Jiménez shrugged off the DGA findings, saying, "This is a preliminary report— the melting is due to global warming."
But Osvaldo Ávila, from Atacama´s Regional Council for the Environment (COREMA), disagrees. "Some losses relate to global warming, but there is absolutely no doubt that the exploration and prospecting activities which damaged these ice masses with roads and powdered material had an impact as well."
What remains unclear is why the report's findings were not included in COREMA's Environmental Impact Report, presented prior to the project's approval. Says Cuenca, "The authorities had full knowledge about these findings, and they didn't take them into account." According to Dep. Enrique Accorsi, "Information like this can't be ignored in the project evaluation process. It's completely valid."
The official explanation is that, according to current laws, authorities can't consider the impact of pre-project explorations in their reports. "It's a gap in our legislation," said Ávila.
On Wednesday, a number of deputies, along with the environment minister and a Barrick Gold representative, met with a delegation of community leaders from the Huasco province (where the mine is located) in a special session in Valparaíso’s senate buildings.
The delegation asked that an inquiry be made into irregularities in the project's approval process, and that the project be paralyzed until such investigations reach a conclusion.
Many deputies responded favorably to the delegation's request. "We're obliged to do so when the authorities in charge of watching over the environment are caught up in such irregular situations," said Dep. Roberto Sepúlveda.
Forty-three deputies must give their approval for a formal inquiry to take place. Meanwhile, the environment minister will make her own report on the issue on July 12.
By Monica Evans

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