One year on from the toxic spill at Barrick Gold’s Veladero mine in San Juan, La Vaca speaks to lawyer for the plaintiffs Diego Seguí about the legal investigation and its lingering uncertainties.
On the 13th September 2015, thanks to a Whatsapp message that went viral, news came to light that changed daily life in Jáchal (San Juan province) forever: mining company Barrick Gold had spilt millions of litres of cyanide solution into the river. Two days later the first reports were filed, which have now led to the prosecution of nine employees, but not a single mining manager or state official.
For the lawyer of the plaintiffs, Diego Seguí, the charges – which is still to be confirmed in the courts – are falling upon the classic ‘scapegoats’ so as to cover the real culprits. “We are asking for the secretary for environmental and mining control, Marcelo Ghiglione, the police chief, and the provincial mining minister, Felipe Saavedra, be called to testify. When the judge spoke about the prosecution of these scapegoats here in San Juan, he thanked the provincial mining authorities for having helped with the investigation, when they are in fact the ones responsible.”
This gratitude to the officials constitutes just one of the many gestures over the course of this year where judicial strategies were weakened by political and economic powers. And thus what happened in the Veladero mine on the morning of 13th September is still spoken about in terms of theories and mysteries.
Judge Pablo Oritja closed his investigation this year when he prosecuted nine Barrick Gold employees and presented his interpretation of the facts. A bit of context: the case relied on prosecutors sent in especially as “reinforcements” and the judge rejected the Jáchal Assembly’s request to be appointed as plaintiff through one of its members, Saúl Ceballos.”
The theory that emerges from Ortiga’s investigation points to a failure in a holding valve as the cause of the spill. “We never saw the forensic tests of the valve, nor whover has it,” Seguí says sarcastically. “The suspicions of the Assembly were that there was an overflow as a result of overuse, and this excess is not the fault of the nine defendants. It is a business decision and related to a lack of government control.”
These suspicions are based on concrete facts that Judge Oritja himself took into account when he decided to suspend activity in Veladero for 15 days. “It was because he found excessive production, because the elevation of the tailings pond was high,” says Seguí. This hypothesis had already been explained by Freddy Espejo, a former mine worker, according to sources still within the company.
The other case investigating the responsibility of the cyanide spill is in the hands of Federal Judge Sebastian Cassanello. “These two criminal investigation proceedings for the same offence generated a conflict of jurisdiction which the courts had to resolve,” says Seguí. In effect, the Supreme Court ruled in May that Cassanello did not have authority to investigate those responsible in the company. “[These included] the CEO of Barrick Gold, Guillermo Caló, who was accused. In practice, it meant declaring Caló’s impunity.”
The verdict of the Court also halted the line of investigation highlighted by the international expert presented by the Assembly, Robert Moran, an environmental impact specialist. Seguí and Morlan visited the Veladero mine and recalls: “We went with a search warrant, but they only gave us a single police officer. They met us with their video cameras, from the miners’ union Aoma…it was horrible: it’s then that you feel the scale of this brutal inequality between businesses and justice.”
What did they see? “The crude reality. It had all been repaired already, but the crude part was the lack of answers to Moran’s technical questions. We arrived at the location of the famous valve: Moran looks at it all and they begin to explain to him. They said ‘this is the valve that broke, before it didn’t have what it has now, we’ll show you what has been done to it: now it is covered in a small structure that has insulating material that can withstand the brutal range in temperature between day and night, and between winter and summer.’ What else? ‘We put a gauge here, a gauge that measures the pressure.’ Even the humblest of cars has a pressure gauge. Can you believe Barrick Gold has been exploiting this mine for ten whole years without a pressure gauge? ‘Now’ – the employee told us – ‘we also have cameras monitoring each of the 12 valves that we have in case of a possible break.’” Seguí’s conclusion: “The fact that they were not doing all this before confirms the responsibility of the company.”
With this evidence, the lawsuit had requested the suspension or closure of the mine for violating the Hazardous Waste Law and National Glacier Protection Act. But the Court blocked Cassanello from that possibility, returned it to the provincial judiciary, and left the federal courts investigating only the responsibility of state officials. What hopes remain? “What little we have left is with Cassanello: we already know about the justice here (in San Juan),” says Seguí.
How many litres were spilt?
Many more than the company acknowledged (1m litres). Roberto Adaro, an environment official that went to the mine on the 26th September, made basic reports and suggests that the estimate has to be counted from the last time that a lookout passed. It could be more than 3mn litres.
What do we still not know?
– The volume of the spill
– What happened
– The impact
– What other metals are polluting the rivers.
What do we know?
The effects that are not a product of the spill, which have to do with the work from the day the mine began. The judge in this case has acknowledged three previous spills. Seguí states that: “talking about ‘the’ spill is a way for Barrick to wash its hands of others, because it singles it out: I’m certain that there were more than three. We also know that the government’s neglect of the Jáchal area since the day of the spill is shocking.”
Translated by Katie McGhee.