Thursday, March 7, 2013

Trouble at Cerro Matoso

Machinery at work at the Cerro Matoso nickel ore mine.
(Photo: W Radio)
Veteran journalist Juan Gossain has this grim full-page story in today's El Tiempo about troubles at the huge Cerro Matoso nickel mine. The mine has long been controversial because of questions about its environmental licenses. Its current license was first issued more than 30 years ago, when environmental standards were far lower. And the mine's operating license was recently extended to at least 2029, and perhaps 2044.

According to Gossain, people in communities near the mine have suffered many health problems, including skin diseases and miscarriages. He also cites a report saying that the local river water, which people use for drinking, bathing and fishing, has nickel concentrations many times higher than those considered safe.

The Cerro Matoso nickel ore mine in Cordoba Department.
(Photo: El Espectador
Mining companies generally respond to such accusations by arguing that the data is mistaken and-or that the health problems have other causes. Sometimes, unsophisticated rural people have bad health practices, such as high smoking rates - altho one would imagine that life in the country would generally be healthier than that in the city. They also usually point to company investments in the region.

In this interview in El Tiempo, the president of Cerro Matoso makes such arguments. But he offers few concrete figures. And his comment about the decades-old environmental license still being valid makes me question much of what he says.

In any case, if Gossain's report is accurate, it raises obvious questions. Why are these people, who live in a region of great wealth, so poor and ill? Part of the reason certainly could be alleged corruption and mismanagement among local officials, which caused the central government to suspend royalty payments to the region several years ago. But, notwithstanding that, the mine's operators, it seems to me, have an obligation to improve neighboring communities' quality of life and protect their health.

Skin outbreaks on a child's back in a community near Cerro Matoso.
(Photo: El Tiempo)
On its web site, mine owner BHP Billiton boasts that Cerro Matoso is one of the world's largest and "one of the world's lowest-cost producers" of nickel ore and that the company is considering expanding the mine. Doesn't that suggest that the company could invest more in neighboring communities?

This is far from the first piece of controversy over Cerro Matoso. Last December the controlaria objected to an extention of the mine's environmental license and has said that the mine's license is invalid and that it owes royalties.

ANLA Exposé By W Radio

On Plaza Bolivar, a popsicle seller relaxes near graffiti
denouncing the government's 'mining locomotive.'
To me, the accusations ring true, particularly in light of this harsh report about the National Environmental Licensing Agency, the ANLA, broadcast in February by W Radio.

The radio station had evidently talked to agency whistleblowers and obtained internal ANLA documents which showed that agency directors were watering down environmental requirements.

"There is a permanent tension between the technicians who develop the environmental licenses and the directors who finally sign and issue them," the reporter said.

The reporter said he had a license which had been drawn up by environmental technicians, but then altered by the agency's directors. He said the directors had removed many of the environmental standards, such as measurements of environmental function and biodiversity, forest cover, endangered species, water sedimentation, reforestation as compensation and others.

"These (requirements) are crossed out, in other words they don't demand them of those requesting the environmental license," he said. "The technicians prepare documents in which they try to protect the environment, but directors ask them to remove the requirements to make (the environmental licenses) much weaker."

He also said that in cases where technicians reject environmental applications, ANLA directors may call the applying company and advise them how to modify the application so that it will be approved.

He also described gifts by oil companies to ANLA officials.

"We've also discovered that ANLA directors receive invitations from oil companies, including Pacific Rubiales," the reporter said, including "one to Barranquilla to see a football game.

"Technicians say that the environmental licenses are being issued filled with chambonadas. That licenses developed over weeks and months are taken apart in days."

As an example, he cited a case in which a company had applied to prospect for oil in a place where the earth was so wet for much of the year that the groundwater would be polluted. Tecnicians had rejected the application, but ANLA directors approved it.

He also described a shift in priorities for the agency. Several months ago, he said, the ANLA had three attorneys drawing up environmental licenses and seven doing follow-up to ensure compliance. But now, they have three attorneys are drawing up licenses and only one doing following up."

He quoted a director of the ANLA, who said "We are paid to issue licenses, not to deny them."

Pres. Juan Manuel Santos would probably agree with the ANLA official. He likes to call mining a "locomotive" of Colombia's economy.

The W Radio reporter said that ANLA officials had not responded to requests for comments.

El Tiempo columnist Manuel Rodriguez Becerra writes that the Anla is required to decide on environmental licenses within 180 days, whereas other nations' environmental authorities are given several years to make such judgements. Even worse, Becerra points out that the Anla is responsible for only 30 of the more than 2,000 extant environmental licenses. While Anla is responsible for the very large mining and infrastructure projects, the rest are handled by the Regional Autonomous Corporations, known as CARs, which are notorious for political influences.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

Miguel this is an amazing post.

Miguel said...

Thanks Mauricio. Society's priorities are often just really, really awry, it seems to me. And, when that happens, it's usually the rich and powerful who take advantage.