One of the world’s greatest adventure tourism destinations is being threatened by the plans of Kinross Gold Corporation, of Canada and Geocom Resources Inc. of the United States. These junior level mining concerns are intent on establishing a gold mine along the Rio Espolon, a major tributary of the Futaleufu River. Discovery work was conducted within the claim in 2006 resulting in the release of assay results in April, 2007. Along with substantially high gold deposits, some as concentrated as 20.9 grams per tonne, the assay also returned reports of a “massive” sulfide layer nearly three meters thick within the ore body. These sulfide layers are notorious for producing Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) – sulfuric acid - a potent environmental poison which is discharged from mine tailings. Furthermore, such toxic drainage can go on for centuries, long after a mine has shuttered its operation. Rather than declare the area unfit for a safe mining enterprise, Kinross Gold Corporation and Geocom Resources Inc. have instead elevated the Espolon Claim to a “formal venture status” thus instigating a confrontation with determined and established environmental organizations(1) and adventure travel outfitters for the future of the region, as outlined below.
Geographic proximity to communities, national parks and adventure tourist destinations
The location of the future mine is an odd choice, as if the company executives were unaware of the community they planned to operate in, which in the past has been typical of many North American based mining operations. Canadian mining companies, with a wink and a nod from the Canadian Government, (2) have often shoved aside indigenous people around the world (3); the evicted and displaced populations of Guatemala being a perfect recent example (4). What these companies are allowed to do internationally they are prohibited by law from doing in their own country (5) leading the CEO of a prominent Canadian mining corporation to proclaim, "Chile is the best mining jurisdiction in the world... Canada is not a jurisdiction where I would like to develop a mine." (6) Where it is unthinkable that Canadians would be exposed to the toxins generated by these mines, Canadian mining interests like the ones proposing this project in the Futaleufu River Valley have little concern about exposing poorly represented and uninformed indigenous people to the health and environmental threats of heavy metals, sulfuric acid (battery acid), and cyanide. (7)
As for the geographic neighborhood of the mine, on the western border of the Kinross-Geocom claim lies Pumalin National Park (8), Chile’s largest and newest nature sanctuary, founded by American entrepreneur and passionate conservationist Douglas Tompkins(9). Tompkins, who made his fortune founding the Esprit and North Face apparel companies before discovering the Shangri-La of Patagonia, is vehemently opposed to the gold mine as well as the road that must be built through Pumalin Park to sustain it. (10) An "industrial thoroughfare" through and bordering the park he founded is not something he envisioned.
To the east of the mining claim lies the famously anti-mining province of Chubut, Argentina (11) whose populace recently voted down(12) a proposed gold mine, by Meridian Gold Corporation, another North American concern. The mine was to be situated seven kilometers from the city of Esquel, Argentina, which sits some 50 kilometers from the present Kinross-Geocom claim in the Futaleufu River Valley. Instead of working with the citizens of Esquel, to address points of weakness in the company's environmental impact statement (EIS), Meridian Gold instead chose to pursue their case all the way to the Argentine Supreme Court where they were summarily rebuffed. (13) It probably came as some surprise to the Meridian Gold executives, who are used to having their say in nations in which they are ostensibly guests, that the Argentine government works independently of the international extraction industry. (14 , 15) Had the same environmental challenge been raised in Chile, its authors would have been, at minimum, monitored by the Chilean National Intelligence Agency (16 , 17 , 18) before the challenge was inevitably papered-over under the pretense that Chile is not ready for the full environmental privileges, protections and regulations of a first world country(19), being only one of three countries in the Western Hemisphere without an Environmental Protection Agency. (Peru and Panama are the other two, for those keeping track.) It is sad to say that it appears the Chilean national government believes that quality of life improvements for its citizens can only be made manifest through environmental degradation, not preservation. (20)
To compound matters on the Argentine side of the claim, the Kinross-Geocom mine, once built, will abut one of Argentina’s preeminent nature reserves, Los Alerces National Park. (20) The park is world famous for harboring rare populations of ancient Alerce Trees, some over three thousand years old. The blasting in the mine, which will send heavy metals aloft, will unfavorably effect the air quality, water quality and health of Los Alerces.(22) In addition, the drainage of the Futaleufu River, one of the greatest sport fisheries in Patagonia runs directly through or is directly adjacent to the mine. Exposure to even the most diminutive amounts of cyanide, heavy metals or sulfuric acid will irreparably spoil this international angling treasure. (23.)
Finally, to the south of the mining claim lies the spectacular and awe-inspiring Futaleufu River Valley, world renowned for international adventure travel and worldclass whitewater rafting and kayaking. The Futaleufu region is fast becoming one of Patagonia, Chile’s greatest tourist destinations, gaining the same fame and stature as Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina’s Cerro FitzRoy, in recent Chilean (24) and international (25) media coverage. The Futaleufu River Valley is also a favorite vacation destination of a wide array of Hollywood celebrities and European and North American business magnates, some of whom have bought property in the valley that will be rendered worthless when the Kinross-Geocom mine begins operation. A recent well publicized outfitter's trip included:
"John McEnroe and his wife, rock singer Patty Smyth; comedian-writer Dan Aykroyd and his wife, actress Donna Dixon; and Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband, Saturday Night Live comic; Brad Hall, all with children in tow." (25)
The above mentioned trip also happened to include Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Chilean Senator, Antonio Horvath. According to the outfitters, who run adventure trips on the river, there are many other celebrities who vacation in the Futaleufu Valley, incognito, that will gladly volunteer to shed their anonymity to help publicize the plight of the Futaleufu - virtually ensuring that the fight over this river will become long and protracted.
Incongruously, this world-renowned adventure Mecca lies only a few kilometers downstream from the ill-considered Kinross-Geocom mining claim and it will bear the full brunt of the cyanide, heavy metals and acid runoff the mine is sure send down the drainage, (26) rendering the river lifeless and useless (27) to anything but the generation of hydropower – which will likely be this project's aftermath? (28)
Sulfide Contamination throughout the Strike Zone
If geographic location were not inauspicious enough for this proposal, what lies between the ore bearing lodes is the pièce de résistance of environmental foreboding and abuse. As reported in the official Geocom Resources company assay (29), of April 2007, the Espolon Mining Claim contains a “massive” sulfide layer composed of the sulfur laden compounds of pyrrhotite-pyrite and chalcopyrite. These injurious aggregates, which nature has wisely provided to safely and nearly permanently encapsulate, when exposed to an atmosphere of oxygen and water, of which the Patagonia region has no shortage, devolve to form sulfuric acid. (30) While acid is a valuable commodity (when confined to an automobile battery) to have sulfuric acid freely flowing through the environment is another matter altogether.
As far as the sport fishery is concerned it can be completely wiped out by one flood that the mine owners fail to contain. (31, 32) A small tailings dam in Romania failed with the following result:
In January 2000, the tailings impoundment dam failed, resulting in the release of 130 cubic yards (130 pick-up trucks worth) of mine waste contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals. The result was the disruption of drinking water supplies in 24 locations and for 2.5 million people and a massive fish kill in the Tisza River where up to 80% of all fish perished. In all, over 1,200 miles of the Danube River system were contaminated. (33 , 34 , 35)
If the Kinross-Geocom mine were to be developed in North America, a region with strict environmental laws, it would require the most stringent and extreme precautions, often requiring the claim owners to harvest only the highest-grade ores and avoid tailings reclamation. (36) This is something Kinross Gold Corporation has historically loathed to practice. (37) During such a mine’s lifespan, were it located in North America and not Chile, environmental regulations would require that all water be cached and filtered through a water treatment plant and that the mine be back-filled with limestone as a final precaution at the end of its productive use. All of these safeguards are expensive and significantly limit a mine’s lifespan, productivity and profitability and are no guarantees against natural disasters. However, in a country with weak environmental laws, these concerns are often dismissed so that the indigenous inhabitants might enjoy jobs at the mine to the sacrifice of their environment, communities and health. (38) Furthermore, should an employee elect to become a part owner in the mining enterprise they would find the proposition exceedingly difficult as the mine’s stock is not listed on the Chilean stock exchange, despite Chile being the company’s primary venue of business. (39)
Abundant water and epic storms mean acid mine runoff and containment difficulties.
Water is another element of concern in the extremely sodden environment of Patagonia, Chile. Anyone who has spent any significant time in this area is bound to encounter the epic rains that frequently soak this region, sometimes for weeks at a time. It is not unimaginable that one of these storms could inundate the Espolon Mine forcing a release of toxic tailings waste into the environment, as was the recent case with the Red Dog Zinc Mine in Alaska.
"As I've told you folks here in the past, we can't stop discharging unless it stops raining," Kuals said. "Until that happens we must discharge water or that dam will fill up and overtop and nobody wants that to happen."
The only recourse the Red Dog Mine owners offered was to reapply to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States to increase their discharge quota. (40)
Cyanide in the water - a necessary part of the gold mining process
The Espolon Mine will require vast amounts of toxic cyanide to extract the metal from the ore layers. Cyanide is used to process both base and precious metals and is the reagent of choice at modern mines. 85% of the world's gold is produced through the cyanide leach process. (41)Cyanide leach mining is a hallmark of the Kinross Gold Corporation which is petitioning the EPA in the United States to implement the technology at mines it owns in Alaska. (42) Cyanide spills can cause longterm problems for local communities like Futaleufu which lies directly downstream of the mine.
"Even after mining ceased in 1997, cyanide continued to leak into nearby Jordan Creek at levels harmful to aquatic life. At the Beal Mountain, Kendall, Golden Sunlight and Zortman-Landusky mines - all in Montana - numerous cyanide spills and leaks contaminated drinking water aquifers and killed streams. These weren't transient effects. Because of persistent cyanide contamination, Pegasus Gold had to provide an alternative drinking water source to the town of Zortman..." (43)
Cyanide mining has been banned in some provinces of Argentina (44) and recently in Romania. (45)
Pit Mine Blasting - Will the "daily blast" rock the Futaleufu River Valley?
In order to loosen rock material to be transported to the cyanide leach heaps, rock must first be loosened from the surface using pit blasting. These daily blasts are so large and powerful that they are often captured on seismographs designed for earth quake monitoring:
"In August 2004 a UNR group set out a line of 400 seismometers extending from Fresno, Calif. north across Nevada to Idaho. These seismometers recorded earthquakes and several large (>100,000 lb ANFO) mining blasts at huge open-pit gold mines in northern Nevada for one week. This open-pit gold mine is more than 400 m (1400 ft) deep and over 2 km (1.5 mi) wide. Blasting is done almost every weekday, since for these deposits gold production depends on crushing and processing huge volumes of ore." (46)
Because the topographic relief is so great in the Futaleufu Valley the noise created by these mega-blasts will echo through the canyons for miles. Noise pollution will not only affect the experience of international adventurers visiting the valley but may also impact animal species like the endangered Huemul which lives in a dedicated nature reserve nearby. What pit mine blasting does to people living in the vicinity is already well documented:
"Mining companies blast rocks once or twice daily and this does not only generate noise pollution but the vibration has created deep cracks in residential buildings and schools. Four schools in the Kwabibirem district, Fiaseman Sec. Sch. in Tarkwa, three basic schools at Bogoso to mention a few, are on the verge of collapsing due to deep cracks in them. Must we allow this to continue?" (47)
Take a tour of various Kinross Gold Corporation properties from around the world. For all practical purposes, this IS the future of the Futaleufu River Valley, these mines look all alike.
Exchanging the Patagonia wilderness for jewelry & jobs
The Espolon Mine will be a scar on the landscape, a sprawling industrial zone comprised of some 14 square miles (3800 hectares, 9360 acres) at latest count, if all the ore is to be mined. (48) At the end of the mine’s useful life all that will remain is a pit brimming with hazardous mine tailings covered over with a thin layer of topsoil which will need to be monitored for centuries after closure, to ensure that nothing infiltrates the water-table and watershed. (49)
In exchange for all this environment cost the mine owners promise jobs and community fringe benefits - for as long as the strike lasts. The “creation of jobs” (50) has become the cornerstone of the miner’s mantra as if the very act itself supersedes the environmental damage they intend to inflict. (51)
It is ironic that even with the sharp increase in the number of the mining companies established all over the country, unemployment in the mining areas is growing at a geometric rate and labour rights and welfare are ever deteriorating. Social inequity is further exacerbated by the fact that the indigenous people’s hopes of attaining employment in these mines have all too often proved elusive. Two reasons account for this:
1. The processes involved in surface mining offer few job opportunities for unskilled labour.
2. Where they can be absorbed, they are discriminated against.
These mining companies propose an employment quota for the affected communities as bait to gain local acceptance but consistently fail to deliver. The introduction of surface mining has been characterised by forceful ejection, displacement, relinquishing of farmlands and an outright ban on agricultural activities including farming, hunting and fishing. Believe me the legacy has been acute unemployment associated with a drastic fall in living standards. In effect, people in mining areas are pushed deeper into poverty. (52)
Using the very same logic these miners employ one could argue that the dismantling of the Pyramids of Egypt would offer local Egyptians the same perks during the destruction and the very same disadvantages after it was over (lack of tourists) – albeit without the centuries of subsequent environmental heavy metal contamination.
Gold mining produces nothing of practical value.
Finally, the most peculiar aspect of gold mining is that it produces nothing of practical value. Gold is mined almost exclusively to adorn the wrists, fingers and necks of the upper classes (53). There is no shortage of gold in the world for useful purposes. However, what the planet is fast running out of are wild and pristine places like the wilderness areas of Patagonia, Chile. (54)
In Summary - Eight Reasons to question the Espolon Gold Mine
1] The mine is located in an ecologically sensitive triangle between the Pumalin National Park in Chile, Los Alerces National Park in Argentina and the spectacular world-class tourist destination of the Futaleufu River Valley. The land already has a use as world-class international tourist destination. How can a gold mine of this magnitude exist without degrading the environment and scaring away international travelers?
2] The mine claim area contains vast amounts of Sulfide which will cause Acid Rock Drainage (ARD) and Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). This mining proposal, if approved, will be the dirtiest type of gold mine possible. The effects on the aquatic life in the Espolon and Futaleufu River Valleys will be devastating. The result will affect every fishing lodge and aquatic dependent business in the watershed, including possibly the Salmon Industry in the Golfo Corcovado sixty miles downstream.
3] The Espolon Mine will use vast quantities of toxic Cyanide in the extraction process. The cyanide will be present in tailings waste containment ponds waiting for the inevitable flood which will send toxic water down the Espolon into Futaleufu River, as was the case on the Danube River in Europe. Additionally the cyanide can leak from the containment areas and infiltrate the ground water making it unfit for human consumption for decades after closure. When this happens will Kinross Gold & Geocom Resources be around to monitor and ameliorate the environmental problems they caused?
4] The Futaleufu River Valley region is subject to vast amounts of precipitation and frequently floods. Even if Kinross Gold Corporation and Geocom Resources Inc plan for the worst-case flood scenario, and spend accordingly to prevent it, the Espolon Mine will leak acid and heavy metals into the environment, either through necessary releases to avoid a containment dam breach or through a breach itself. Vide infra:
"In 1992 in Summitville, Colorado (USA), a containment dam that held mine waste from a gold mining operation burst. The escaped toxic waste killed all life along a 25 km stretch of a nearby river." (55)
5] Daily pit-mine blasting in the Futaleufu Valley will drive away international tourists and wildlife. If the residents of the valley are lucky there will only be one seismically recordable blast a day. However, because the Espolon claim is so large, it is possible that there will be more than one open pit, which will require more than one explosion.
6] The mine region has no infrastructure to support heavy industry. Within the region there are limited roads and a limited electricity supply. All equipment for the mine, including cyanide for the leeching process, will need to be transported through Pumalin Parque or the Futaleufu River Valley. Both of these are unacceptable from a tourism perspective.
7] The Futaleufu River Valley is fast becoming one of Chile's greatest international tourism destinations. The pure, translucent teal colored waters of the Futaleufu River make it one of the most photogenic rivers in the world. Will tourists visit an area whose streams, lakes and rivers have been compromised beyond recognition?
8] Gold is a decorative metal with very limited use outside the manufacture of adornments. Is it worth the price of destroying one of the last pristine wilderness areas on the earth to produce it? The desire for gold has been the historical driving force behind the destruction of entire civilizations in the Western Hemisphere - do we need to add the Futaleufu River Valley as well?