On a farm just a few kilometers from the Nicaraguan border, work began this week on what is planned and permitted to be an open-pit gold mine that will eventually plunge 65 meters (215 feet) into the earth.
The project, called Las Crucitas, is named after the closest of a scattering of tiny, poor border communities in the remote region. After years of court battles and protests, Industrias Infinito, the Costa Rican subsidiary of the Canadian firm behind the project,Vannessa Ventures, was given the goahead last month.
The Supreme Court had annulled the firm’s concession in 2006, saying it applied for its permits out of order, but after appeals, the court handed the final decision to Oscar Arias’ administration, said Industrias Infinito spokesman Andrés Soto.
In late April, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) announced that a revised proposal from the company had “environmental, social and economic viability” and would be allowed to proceed.
The decision came the same day MINAE announced the president’s controversial decision to lift a six-year moratorium on open-pit metal mining in Costa Rica in April.
Las Crucitas, however, was one of two mines exempted from the moratorium when it was decreed by then-president Abel Pacheco in 2002 because they already had their permits.
In its revamped proposal, Vannessa Ventures shrunk the total surface area of the mine from 126 hectares (311 acres) to 50 hectares (123 acres), looking to reduce its environmental impact, Soto said.
“The company decided to resubmit the project with the objective of making it more sustainable,” he said.
To make up for the reduced area, however, the company decided to go deeper, scrapping plans for a 15-meter-deep mine that would only go after gold found in clay in favor of a 65-meter-deep mine that also targets hard rock. The change means explosives will be needed.
The company also decided that, rather than running the processing plant and other operations on diesel fuel, they would run a 69,000-kilowatt power line 74 kilometers (46 miles) from the San Carlos electricity cooperative to their site.
“The decision to not use diesel and instead use electricity is equivalent to the fixation of 4,000 hectares of forest per year,” he said. Forests capture, or “fix,” greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are blamed for global warming.
Despite the alterations, environmentalists are critical. Las Crucitas will use cyanide to separate gold from clay and rock now buried under former farmland, pasture and forest.
The Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON) blasted the project, saying it would pollute nearby rivers, creeks and springs, and communities along the route where the cyanide would be shipped would be put at risk of potential spills.
“Its location 3 kilometers from the San Juan River (the natural border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua) would cause an international conflict before an eventual contamination of the waters,” FECON said in a statement.
Concerns were heightened last year when the Bellavista Mine, the only other open-pit gold mine in Costa Rica, suffered a series of landslides that destroyed a processing plant, ripped containment materials and spread fear of environmental catastrophe in nearby communities. That mine, which also had been excluded from the 2002 moratorium, had received its environmental approvals despite warnings of such a disaster.
The Arias administration, however, believes that a series of new safeguards and requirements guarantee the safety of Las Crucitas.
These include “strict protection of surface and subterranean water resources,” cooperation with local governments in “elaborating and executing socio-economic, cultural and environmental development plans” and requiring the companies to plant trees.
Soto said Vannessa Ventures will reforest 382 hectares of property it owns with native species for conservation, noting that while the new mining regulations require three trees planted for every one cut down, the Las Crucitas project will plant 50 per fallen tree.
The company has funded local school improvements and is promising more. It pays for training courses for local residents in areas such as organic agriculture and tourism and promises to employ 300 people during construction and 230 during operations.
It said it will pour millions of dollars into local government coffers in taxes and fees. And it is building a series of bridges and improving local roads.
These promises, however, have not calmed local opposition.
“We are truly outraged,” said Janeth Rojas, a farmer-activist from the region. “The government is not listening to the people.”
Rojas said residents have been organized against attempts to allow open-pit mining in the area for 13 years, concerned not only about environmental impacts, but social effects as well.
“The concern is not only that it will pollute, but it will displace us, converting the people from farmers into miners. And remember, mining is a short-term activity.”
The mine, expected to begin operations in September 2009, would operate for five years before beginning to shut down, a process that lasts another year and a half.
According to Soto, an estimated 76,000 ounces of gold will be drawn from the mine each year, for a total of 380,000 ounces over five years. At gold’s price on Thursday, that would yield nearly $335 million.