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Groups call on company to disclose information and pay for clean-up; Cyanide, other chemicals may have already leaked into environment

Friends of the Earth – MiningWatch Canada

San Jose and Washington, DC, 11 September, 2007: A multinational coalition of environmental and human rights organizations are calling on Canadian mining company Glencairn Gold Corporation to disclose information about suspected cyanide and metals pollution from the Bellavista gold mine in Costa Rica. Glencairn shut down the mine in late July, following heavy rains that caused substantial earth movements, and has reported in financial statements that the mine “may remain closed indefinitely,” but has not made available any information about the extent of current or potential damage. The groups also demand proper cleanup and remediation of any current or future contamination.

“Glencairn must disclose complete information about the conditions at the mine site,” notes Sonia Torres of CEUS del Golfo in Costa Rica. “Without this, how can we protect our people and drinking water from pollution?”

Bellavista is an open-pit gold mine, and uses a method known as “cyanide heap-leaching” — in which huge piles of crushed ore are soaked with cyanide solution to extract gold. According to Glencairn, heavy rainfall in May led to significant earth movements that disturbed these massive heaps of cyanide-tainted wastes as well as other waste rock piles at the mine. Experts familiar with the mine fear that such conditions could lead to pollution of water and soil with cyanide and other contaminants due to a rupture in the leach-pad lining. Glencairn has said that it first noticed cracks in two corners of the leach pad in May, but the company continued to operate the mine and apply cyanide until July 25.

“Putting an open-pit gold mine in a mountainous, tropical region prone to landslides and torrential rainfall is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Anna Cederstav, a chemist with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA). “Unfortunately, the risks of toxic ground-water contamination are now real and must be dealt with at once.” In 2005, Dr. Cederstav had testified before Costa Rica's Supreme Court about the likely impacts of the Bellavista mine. Even before the mine was approved, Dr. Cederstav and other independent technical experts had warned that the region's topography and rainfall make it an inappropriate location for a large-scale mine.

Cleaning up and controlling mining pollution can be extremely expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars for long-term treatment to protect water supplies. Glencairn has provided just $250,000 in financial guarantees for Bellavista — funds which are intended for mine cleanup, and do not provide insurance against mishaps like the unstable leach pad. Jim Kuipers, a mining engineer and mining bonding expert based in Butte, MT, says, “These types of events typically result in an order of magnitude increase in remediation costs above the original estimate. And this mine was almost certainly under-bonded to begin with.”

The coalition of groups calls on the Costa Rican government to commission a team of independent technical experts to conduct a review of the Bellavista mine, and to ensure that Glencairn will undertake and fully cover the costs of all necessary mitigation and remediation.

“Glencairn must make sure that communities around the mine are protected from pollution, and that includes paying for clean-up,” said Payal Sampat of EARTHWORKS and the “No Dirty Gold” campaign. “Otherwise taxpayers and communities are stuck with the bill — and the pollution.”

Costa Rica outlawed all new open-pit mining in 2002, but the Bellavista mine was given a permit prior to the ban. It is the only operating large open-pit mine in this ecotourism-dependent country. High metals prices are driving a gold mining rush in other parts of Latin America.

“Costa Rica has had the foresight to ban open-pit mining, which can be incredibly destructive to people and the environment,” said Gabriel Rivas-Ducca of Friends of the Earth in Costa Rica. “We hope this incident will serve as a warning to other regions that are opening their doors to gold mining.”

Cyanide and the metal contamination produced at mines such as this are toxic to humans and extremely dangerous for wildlife, especially aquatic species. If mixed with acidic water, typically present at gold mines, cyanide generates hydrogen cyanide gas, an even more potent poison. Cyanide spills at gold mines elsewhere, including other parts of Latin America, Europe and Africa, have led to fish and wildlife kills and water pollution. Gold mining can also cause significant pollution of soil and water with sulfuric acid drainage and metals such as arsenic and mercury.

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