Mining companies are lining up to poke holes into Costa Rican ground after President Oscar Arias in April lifted a ban on open-pit mining.
Two companies have concessions to mine, and more than 30 others are prospecting for ore, according to government officials and documents from the Legislative Assembly.
Those two companies are Industrias Infinito S.A., which will operate the upcoming Las Crucitas mine near the Nicaraguan border in the northwest, and Río Minerales S.A., which operate the Bellavista mine in Miramar, overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast.
Among the companies searching for places to mine is the British company Ascot Mining Plc. The company’s total gold stock has been increased by some 22,000 ounces since the end of then-President Abel Pacheco’s 2002 moratorium on new openpit mining, according to Forbes magazine.
Despite the fears of environmentalists, government and mining officials continue to say that the environment faces little danger from the cyanide used to extract gold ore from rock.
“The (new cyanide breakdown systems) cost $3 million, which reflects the quality of the machinery,” said Jose Andrés Soto, social responsibility manager for Industrias Infinito. “We are not using a plant from the last century.”
The Las Crucitas mine, located near the San Juan River that divides Costa Rica and Nicaragua, has caused an uproar among Nicaraguan officials and concerned environmentalists.
Its operators, however, insist their system breaks down cyanide to a level that is completely tolerable to people, even if it were to enter the ecosystem.
The Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) agrees.
“The system works with tanks,” said Francisco Castro, director of MINAE’s Geology and Mining Administration. “It’s a closed circuit. This is a much safer (than previous systems), much friendlier system to the environment. It is much easier to monitor.”
After a series of treatments in tanks, the remains are placed in pools. The level of cyanide in the water is less than one part per million in these lagoons, according to Soto.
Five parts per million is enough cyanide to kill a grown adult.
Soto said Industrias Infinito is employing a cyanide breakdown system called CyPlus, has been used without major incidents for more than 20 years in more than 80 mines worldwide.
“With new technology,” Castron said, “there are a lot of activities you can undertake if you follow the controls. There are places with massive mining endeavors and great environmental records. The advances in technology are astounding. The impact on the environment can be controlled now.”
Soto estimates the Las Crucitas mine will produce 70,000 ounces of gold per year over a five-year period once the mine opens sometime in late 2009. That value represents hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of those years. In recent months, the price of gold has ranged between $900 and $1,000 per ounce.
Sonia Torres, president of the environmental group CEUS, is not convinced of the mine’s safety.
“We have a ton of rain,” Torres said. “These lagoons will (leak) into the environment. There is a very high risk. These systems have failed in tropical places.”
The controversy with Nicaragua centers on the fact that many local villages obtain their food and water from the river.
Fish, a dietary staple in these villages, can accumulate cyanide in their cells, meaning that even small amounts can compound in fish higher up the food chain as they eat smaller fish that have absorbed the toxin.
“The worst-case scenario is the contamination of the San Juan River,” Torres said.
“Nicaraguan and Costa Rican communities rely on it. The fish would die in massive numbers. (Cyanide) ends up in the fish and in the clothing of the people who wash their clothes in the river. A quantity of cyanide the size of a grain of rice can kill a person.”
Soto thinks the issue will never arise because of the low levels of the chemical in the lagoons, which are mainly composed of byproducts.
“The water is totally usable afterward,” he said.
But even the leftover compounds scare Torres.
“In Costa Rica, there aren’t any regulations for the management of the byproducts,” Torres said. “It isn’t possible to do this successfully. In every example there have been effects. Costa Rica has seen examples of this with the Bellavista mine.”
The Bellavista mine was forced to close after landslides destroyed the site and jeopardized local water supplies (TT, Jan 18).