Over a million litres of a cyanide solution gushed into the Potrerillos River from the Barrick Gold-owned Veladero mine in San Juan, the company reported on Wednesday.
The Canadian mining company initially reported a leak of 224,000 litres of the toxic substance, but now says over four times that amount was purged into the local waterway, the equivalent of 12,500 full bathtubs.
The judge of the nearby town of Jáchal, Paul Oritja, said in an interview with Infobae he suspended the mine’s gold leaching process until the company provides “an improvement plan, a measure of specific safe handling of all valves.”
The spill occurred on 12/13th September and news quickly spread among local residents through social media, causing them to stockpile bottled water in fear.
Cyanide poisoning can cause a range of symptoms from nausea and vomiting to headaches and seizures. At worst it can cause death.
In a statement on 21st September, Barrick Gold said “No cyanide has been detected in the river system downstream from the mine since 15th September” and that “no risks to human health were identified.”
Oritja reiterated this in a report and said that the “the samples that have been made have all tested negative for cyanide contamination.” But he noted that the tests do not rule out the possibility for environmental damage due to the spill.
Barrick Gold said the spill was caused by a “faulty valve on a pipe carrying solution with cyanide” and that the floodgate which should have been closed to prevent the spill from entering the river was open.
Prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint over the incident to determine whether it was a crime and whether the mining company is criminally liable.
Last week over 6,000 people rallied together in Jáchal to protest the mining company.
Officials from the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) are in San Juan to audit the mine and present their findings to the local government.
This is not the first time the mining company has landed in hot water. Barrick Gold has come under harsh criticism in the past for unethical conduct. In 2013 it was fined $16.4m in Chile, the largest environmental fine in the country’s history.
Indigenous residents downstream from the Barrick Gold mine Pascua-Lama in the Andes reported a range of health problems including cancer and suspected the mine of polluting the river that fed their produce.
The Veladero mine produced 722,000 ounces of gold last year and is forecast to produce around 10% of the company’s gold output this year. Barrick Gold reported on Wednesday that the suspension to gold leaching process has not affected production.