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Open pit iron mining in Uruguay. What would we have for the future?

Open pit iron mining in Uruguay. What would we have for the future?


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By Víctor L. Bacchetta

The disclosure of the official reports presented by the Aratirí company to the Uruguayan government requesting authorization for its large-scale open pit iron mining proposal in the center of the country shows that, if this project is implemented, we would be facing total destruction and definition of the ecosystem in a large area of ​​the national territory.


Corta Atalaya was the largest open pit mine in Europe, in Huelva, Spain. It is 1200 meters long, 900 meters wide and 350 meters deep, similar to the craters of 100 ha projected by Aratirí in Uruguay. Corta Atalaya, owned by the Rio Tinto Company, was in operation until September 1994 and remains so until today.

The wastes from the extraction of the ore are divided into two, the sterile deposits next to each mine and the tailings reservoir where the sludge from the final separation of iron from the ore goes in the industrial plant.

The deposits on the side of the mines reach up to 100 m in height and cover an area 2.5 times that of the crater, that is, a total of 2,000 ha. The tailings reservoir would eventually have a height of 51 meters, a crest of 110 meters and the area of ​​the deposit would cover 2,420 hectares.

If 250 ha of the water reserve and 50 ha of internal roads are added to the pits and waste deposits, without counting the intermediate spaces and other facilities, they add up to 5,520 ha against 4,300 ha declared in the EIA.

Impacts of extraction

The main impacts of mineral extraction are: a) damage to the topography due to destabilization of slopes, landslides, mass removal and the triggering of erosive processes; b) soil removal and loss of quantity and quality of the resource; and c) diversion of surface waters. According to the report, these impacts would be permanent and irreversible.

According to Aratirí, the diversion of the channels has a "high impact on the environment and on water users in the area close to the mining operation facilities." To this must be added the reduction in surface water quality due to the infiltration of mines and deposits, which will be permanent.

The EIA recognizes that the impact on the reduction of groundwater levels and quality is also of high magnitude "near the mines", but does not say how close or far and considers it reversible because "it would improve with the closure of the facilities of the mining operation and as a function of time ”(sic).

According to the EIA of Aratirí, "a wide extension of the vegetation cover has a strong pressure for grazing cattle, which must be relocated to remote areas, which in a short period of time will return to a condition of secondary vegetation." This reduction in grazing is classified as a positive impact with high significance.

Between this last impact and those mentioned above, there is a substantial difference. While the impact that grazing can cause on the vegetation cover is reversible, it does not affect the reproduction of the ecosystem, the damages caused by open pits and waste deposits are irreversible and irrecoverable, as the company admits.

Impacts of explosions

According to Aratirí's proposal, 43,000 tons of explosives will be used per year in the extraction of the mineral and its impacts would be:

  • Decrease in air quality due to gas emissions and generation of particulate matter. Magnitude: high, "they can contain crystals of silicon and actinolite, and biological, economic and social components such as very close residential nuclei can be affected". Extension: partial, immediate and nearby areas will be affected. Persistence: permanent, throughout the operation "intermittently". Recoverability: irreversible.
  • Decrease in sound quality. Magnitude: moderate, biological, economic and social components may be affected. Extension: partial, the immediate areas and very close to the project will be affected. Persistence: temporary, the effects will only occur during daylight hours and every other day. Recoverability: fleeting, "the impact will cease once the noise generation is over" (sic).

In other words, 235.5 tons would be detonated every two days. Despite the euphemisms used to minimize the effects and not define what is close and immediate, the effects are evident. How far can animals and people reasonably coexist?

Buffer strip

This leads us to an issue that is also controversial in the different versions of the company, which is the necessary separation between the mining operation and neighboring productive activities.

  • Versions given to residents of the place in 2010 by technicians from Aratirí said that this strip should be 3 to 4 thousand meters to allow the reasonable coexistence of human beings, fauna and flora.
  • The professor of Geology at the Faculty of Sciences, Gerardo Veroslavski, affirms that there is no standard, that each case must be evaluated.
  • Puntigliano recently said that the standard is 500 m and that Aratirí proposes 1,000 meters of separation between the mine and its neighbors.

A search in the specialized bibliography did not confirm the existence of this standard and, in the plan presented by Aratirí to Dinama, in some mines the buffer zone is less than a thousand meters.


The pipeline

It would be a double pipeline of 60 to 70 cm in diameter and about 212 km in length crossing the departments of Durazno, Florida, Treinta y Tres, Lavalleja and Rocha, affecting about 1,100 ha (a strip of 50 m is calculated in the properties that it crosses ) in 222 patterns. It would cross large rivers like the Cebollatí and other smaller ones, wetlands and palm groves, bordering the Laguna Negra in its final stretch, before heading towards the coast.

The Aratirí EIA highlights the impacts of a pipeline rupture, but seeks to minimize them with extremely vague phrases and states that, ultimately, it is not likely. International experience denies it.

In Argentina, the La Alumbrera pipeline had a spill of 70 cubic meters of gold and copper concentrate in 2004. There were new accidents, several not recorded because public access to the area is prohibited. In Chile there are 14 mining pipelines and incidents are recorded year after year. The press reported an accident at the Anglo Chile pipeline in 2007, two accidents at Minera Escondida in 2008 and one at Los Pelambres in 2009.

Port terminal

According to Aratirí's proposal, the port terminal would occupy some 250 ha, with 1,200 m of coastline, to the northeast of the 1,900 ha property belonging to the Ministry of National Defense in the La Angostura area, the narrowest stretch between the oceanic coast and the Black Lagoon.

"Following the recommendations of the National Government and the Municipality of Rocha," says Aratirí to emphasize that the location of the terminal was defined by the Uruguayan authorities. Although this is subject to the approval of the project, that statement is used by the company to give the image that it has official approval and there is no going back.

In the current project, the terminal would be dedicated exclusively to the transport of iron. On land will be the equipment for separating the water from the metal and pumping the water back to the mining district. A conveyor belt would carry the iron along a 2.5 km long quay to allow deep draft vessels to dock. The access of these vessels also requires the dredging to a depth of 20 m of a channel of about 9 km in length.

Pier impacts

The terminal will cause the following permanent impacts: 1) Affecting the dune system and erosive processes, and 2) Emissions of chemical substances into the environment due to loading and unloading of ships, periodic dredging, discharge of ballast water from ships and introduction of species invasive aliens.


Aratirí also recognizes the impact on traditional activities in the area: "Tourist activity and artisanal fishing are associated with the coastal landscape and an imaginary that underlines its attributes as a“ natural ”space. The Port Terminal and the effects of the operation, especially the presence of boats could alter the perception of this space, affecting the tourist flow to the area. Permanent and irreversible effect. "

An impact not mentioned in the report is the iron in the water, carried by the rains and involuntary discharges, which causes the growth of phytoplankton (tiny single-celled algae) and would affect the nearby beaches.

With respect to coastal properties, the EIA foresees “Changes in the topography of the area due to the erosion of the current coastline to a depth of about 100 m in the area north of the bridge, which will affect private properties near the coast. According to the modeling, these effects, permanent and irreversible, will extend 2 km to the south and 5 km to the north of the bridge ".

But there would be a positive effect: it would be the increase in the marine habitat, a source of food for birds, due to the construction of the pier and its breakwater. At the closure of the mines, if this port is maintained, these effects also, but it would be a hypothetical scenario, even because there would be other plans.

Several analysts consider that this mining project points towards even more ambitious objectives. "The port of Aratirí will become the first deep-water port in Uruguay," said Puntigliano, last December, before the Uruguayan Chamber of Industries (CIU). For years, Puntigliano has been defending this large-scale port, which would establish Uruguay as a regional logistics hub or “gateway to South America”.

The Aratirí terminal is not the infrastructure of a deep-water port, but it may be the beginning for it. The concession to build a port in that part of the Uruguayan coast may be just the beginning of a business much bigger than Valentines' iron.

In short

The unsustainable environmental impact is a problem of degrees or scale, not of whether a certain activity pollutes or does not pollute. All human activity pollutes. The key question is whether or not the magnitude of that impact allows the local and global environmental system to reproduce.

Despite the language used to minimize the impacts and the platitudes of the official Aratirí report, it is evident that if this project were implemented, we would be facing the total and definitive destruction of the ecosystem in a large area of ​​Uruguayan territory. The request before Dinama does not include the archaeological impact study, nor minimal baseline studies on the cultural heritage of the area that would be affected.

Is it possible to fix the value of this irreversible environmental and patrimonial damage? If it is possible to measure it, who is going to pay for it? Do the supposed benefits of this intervention outweigh that result? Everything indicates that no.

Box: Promises of employment

Aratirí promises 3,450 direct jobs and between 10 and 15 thousand indirect jobs, but international experience does not confirm these calculations and the jobs that would be possible do not compensate for the existing jobs.

According to the EIA, the project will employ 1,300 workers in the mining district, 10 in the pipeline, 140 in the port terminal and will generate between 10,000 and 15,000 indirect jobs. We asked Aratirí how he had calculated the indirect employment, he replied that the estimate belonged to the Ferrere Study and they promised to send that information but it never reached us.

The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), which brings together the largest national mining companies and associations in the world, applies a coefficient of 1.7 to 2.5 on direct jobs to calculate indirect jobs that can be generated by a large mining exploitation.

If we accept that Aratirí would generate 1,450 direct jobs and apply the ICMM coefficient to it, it would give us from 2,465 to 3,625 indirect jobs, four times less than the company's estimates.

But Aratirí would not go to operate in a desert region, but occupied by other economic activities. According to Table 1.3-107 of the EIA, in the three areas occupied by the project there are 3,573 people dedicated to agriculture who will be affected by the mining company and 4,156 workers whose degree of impact cannot be directly deduced. The balance is zero or negative.

The EIA does not present figures for current employment in the towns of the Rocha coast. The 140 jobs estimated by the company for the port terminal are not, by far, comparable to the existing work in that area.

This problem so expensive for Uruguayans, that of the sources of work that these investments would provide, is part of the propaganda of these projects. It was like this with Botnia: out of 10,000 indirect jobs promised, today there are about 3,000 and the department of Río Negro has the highest unemployment in the country.

Victor L. Bacchetta


Video: Keynote Markus Kröger - Resistance to extractivisms: Dynamics, strategies and outcomes (July 2022).


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