High levels of heavy metals have been detected in water resources near the Veladero and Pascua Lama gold projects, both owned by Canadian giant Barrick Gold, according to a recently published study by the Center for Human Rights and Environment, an Argentina-based nongovernmental organization.
The open-pit Pascua Lama, whose construction began in 2009, straddles the Argentina-Chile border and is considered one of the largest binational mining projects on earth. The company expects production to begin in 2012 in the mine, which it estimates holds 18 million ounces of gold, 730 million ounces of silver and 650 million pounds of copper.
Valadero, also an open-pit mine, started production in 2005 and is estimated to hold 11.1 million ounces of gold and 169 million ounces of silver.
The study found a sharp increase in heavy metals such as arsenic, aluminum and mercury, among others, starting in 2009, in streams near the mines, which it said “without a doubt” is caused by mining activity.
The organization noted that according to the World Health Organization, these metals are so dangerous because they can disperse themselves throughout the food chain.
“If the water contains a certain metal, this can be passed along to plants,” it said. “Then if an animal eats that plant, you find the metal along the food chain.”
The metal can even show up in the meat that humans consume, or other animal products like milk or eggs, according to the organization.
For his part, Hernán Giardini, of the environmental organization Greenpeace, which launched a campaign to protect the glaciers that many experts have warned would be devastated by the mining project, said that the company has tried to block several efforts to research if the company is already making irreversible damage to the glaciers.
Greenpeace and other environmental group are demanding that Argentina put into force a legislation passed last September to protect glaciers, as well as conducing environmental audits and lifting legal measures obtained by Barrick to carry on with its operations before these are conducted.