<<Also see news about the Canadian mining company Goldcorp's efforts to influence Guatemalan laws below>>
Mining for Gold: A “Pact with the Devil”?
The economic crisis—and the rising price of
gold—have spurred North American firms to reopen mines and attack environmental
regulations. Here’s what we can learn from El Salvador’s moratorium on new
by John Cavanagh, Robin Broad
yesmagazine.org, posted August 28th, 2012
“The water‘s bright orange,” we exclaim while balancing ourselves precariously on rocks alongside a spring. We are visiting the community of San Sebastian in the province of La Union in the northeast corner of El Salvador. Above us stands a mountain with a prominent slash where U.S.-owned and other foreign firms mined gold for over a century, a mountain that also happens to be a key watershed for this area.
“I’ve seen this water also cranberry red and also bright yellow,” our companion responds. But then she quickly adds: “Remember: don’t touch the water. Last time I was here, I slipped and ended up with rashes all over my leg and stomach where I got wet.” She doesn’t need to remind us. Experts from the Salvadoran government’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources were here in July 2012 and they found levels of cyanide and iron that were through the roof.
What at first seems odd is that there hasn’t been commercial gold mining here for at least a decade—since the U.S. company Commerce Group left. But, as we learn on this, our second, research trip to El Salvador, a decade or two can be a blink of an eye for the environmental havoc wreaked by gold mining. These ancient mountains contain not only gold and many other minerals, but also sulfide. It is a deadly combination with long-term consequences: once the mining excavations expose sulfide to the air and rain, it is converted to sulfuric acid. With each new rain, the acid unleashes new toxic substances down the mountain and into the springs and streams. In a nutshell: a long-term poisoning of the water, the land, and the people.
The now-orange spring water flows into a lifeless stream that flows into the San Sebastian river that, in turn, flows into the Santa Rosa river. Along the way, the water is used by many before it enters the Gulf of Fonseca far to the south and continues its journey.
The technical term for the environmental nightmare that is unfolding in front of us is “acid mine drainage.” Acid mine drainage has plagued mine sites from Pennsylvania to El Salvador for centuries. Mining expert Robert Goodland stresses that some communities near ancient Roman mines in England and Spain continue to suffer the effects of acid mine drainage over 2,000 years after the mines were closed. And remediation—or “clean up”—is technically and financially challenging. As a local college student who has studied the situation here explains: even if the funding were available, “we wouldn’t be able to clean this up even in 100 years.”
We spend the next day with Father Lorenzo, a handsome man in his early forties with an easy, dimpled smile, who is the priest from the nearby city of Santa Rosa de Lima. Father Lorenzo leads us up the mountain to the site where Commerce Group mined. On the way, we walk by homes built on land covered by finely crushed rocks, or “tailings”—what remains when the mining companies use cyanide to separate the gold from the surrounding rock. We walk on roads and paths built from the tailings.
As with the water, so too “this land is heavily contaminated,” Father Lorenzo sighs. In the words of a local man whose father worked for Commerce Group: large-scale mining involved “making a pact with the devil.”
Near the top of the mountain, we enter the mines: jagged holes carved into the mountainside, with piles of rock below, here and there a glint suggesting the ore that lies within. It is not hard to figure out where Fr. Lorenzo now stands in terms of mining: a dramatic mural outside his church depicts a denuded landscape darkened by mining. But, we ask, how did Father Lorenzo and the community discover that the mountain we are standing on was a toxic nightmare?
He starts by saying that he was not always against mining; indeed, his father was a miner in a nearby area. But then, 11 years ago, he was assigned to this parish and he and others noted San Sebastian’s high incidence of kidney failure, cancer, skin problems and nervous system disorders: “My first clue [about what was wrong] was that I would visit farms in this community, and I would wash my hands and notice that there were no suds from the soap. The water was too acidic to make suds. This is how we made the link between the mining and the water.”
*Note* It was recently learned
that Commerce Group just met the July 13th deadline for paying the
legal fees necessary in order to start their annulment proceedings to annul the
ICSID decision which ruled that Commerce Group´s lawsuit against the Salvadoran
government could not move forward. The legal team of Commerce Group now has
about six months to prove that the case was marred by legal errors and that it
should be able to move forward. So, the threat of the multi-million dollar Commerce
Group case has reared its ugly head again. Stay tuned to learn what you can do
to help stop this case from moving forward and demand that Commerce Group pay
to repair the environmental damage in San Sebastian.
Mining Watch Canada: Goldcorp organizes junket for Canadian parliamentarians to Guatemala
Tuesday August 28, 2012
This week, it appears that Goldcorp VP Brent Bergeron may be working on his dream to modernize Guatemala’s mining law, which he floated at a parliamentary commission meeting in February.
Six months ago, as a witness before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development about the role of the private sector in achieving Canada’s International Development Interests, Bergeron told the committee:
“In Guatemala, I would like to see them modernize their mining regulations. That would add to the stability of the environment within which we deal in Guatemala. Can I go as Goldcorp and start training the Ministry of Energy and Mines? I can't do that. The credibility behind that is not right. However, I think it makes a lot of sense to have a government institution come in to take our experience here in Canada—the National Resources Canada in terms of their experience—and bring that experience to Guatemala.”
According to an email leaked to MiningWatch Canada on
Monday, which is signed by a Goldcorp lobbyist at Hill & Knowlton
Strategies and written to a member of
parliament, Bergeron and Goldcorp Chairman Ian Telfer will host “a fascinating
visit” to Guatemala from Wednesday to Friday of this week. The delegation will
travel by “Goldcorp aircraft” to Guatemala City on Wednesday and continue on to
the conflict-ridden Marlin mine site on another flight the same day. They will
spend Thursday around the Marlin mine to meet with “mine and community
officials”. On Friday, they plan to fly back to the capital city for “meetings
with ministers” before returning home.
The email, signed by lobbyist Honourable Don Boudria, P.C., a former Liberal MP, indicates that the only two confirmed parliamentarians were Conservative MP from Niagara-West Glanbrook Dean Allison, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Conservative MP from Chatam Kent-Essex Mr. Dave Van Kesteren, a member of the same committee. Liberal and NDP members were also invited, but MiningWatch was unable to identify any that had accepted the invitation.
The timing of the trip and meetings with Guatemalan ministers coincides with uncertainty over the country’s mining law. In June, President Otto Pérez Molina made international news when he proposed mining code reforms, which originally included ramping up state participation in mining projects to a potential 40%. Shares of Tahoe Resources, in which Goldcorp holds a large stake, plummeted that week. Then in July, Guatemalan indigenous organizations presented their arguments in a constitutional challenge to the current mining law for failure to consult with them over legislative changes that affect their rights.
“To hear a Goldcorp executive propose to change the mining law in another country from which they extract 16% of their overall production and to suggest that it would be appropriate for the Canadian government to get involved oozes with a sense of self-entitlement,” says the Latin America Program Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, Jen Moore. “Goldcorp is an economically powerful company in the context of Guatemala and should not be trying to wield its influence in this way.”
“Members of Parliament wanting to learn about the impacts of mining in Guatemala and the reasons for the turmoil it has caused, should set up an independent delegation to visit the Central American country rather than getting on a Goldcorp jet.”
Media Contact- Jen Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada, 613-569-3439
*Note* In a recent New York Times editorial by Sean Lennon about the natural gas fracking threat in New York State, the name Hill and Knowlton also came up.
Few people are aware that America’s Natural Gas Alliance has spent $80 million in a publicity campaign that includes the services of Hill and Knowlton — the public relations firm that through most of the ’50s and ’60s told America that tobacco had no verifiable links to cancer. Natural gas is clean, and cigarettes are healthy — talk about disinformation.
Turns out the same company which promoted smoking as healthy and now promotes gas fracking as environmentally friendly, is also helping GoldCorp promote its environmentally devastating mining operations in Guatemala. Goldcorp is the same company that owns the closed San Martin mine in the Siria Valley of Honduras, an highly polluted area plagued by acid mine drainage and numerous public health problems like those described in the documentary All That Glitters is Not Gold.