As the heavy clouds of the rainy season begin to gather, residents downstream from the ruined Bellavista gold mine are watching the sky nervously.
In the thick of last year’s rainy season, May to October, the terraced sides of the open-pit mine came tumbling down, crushing equipment and a $1 million plant.
The Canadian firm that owns the nowdefunct Bellavista mine had seen it coming, shut down operations and cleaned out the cyanide it was using to extract the gold.
But the October collapse triggered serious concerns over damage to the environment and the community’s water.
Residents wonder whether dangerous chemicals or heavy metals remain in the rubble, waiting to be washed downhill with the next rains.
Seven months later, the rains have begun in the Central Valley and it’s only a matter of time before they begin in the hills to the west, near the Gulf of Nicoya, where Bellavista is located.
Luis Alberto Villalobos, a resident of the nearby town of Miramar and member of the local municipal council, said not enough has been done to prepare the site for the coming rainy season. He also complained that the government and the company have not been giving the community enough information about what has been done.
“The excess weight is still the same as it was last year. It’s possible that when the rains come, there could be big landslides, of a magnitude we don’t know,” he said. “It could be very dangerous.”
Meanwhile, an emergency contingency plan presented by mine owner Central Sun Mining to the local committee of the National Emergency Commission (CNE) was sent back for corrections and additions earlier this month, said committee member William Aguilar.
“The contingency plan was not accepted as a contingency plan. It was accepted as a diagnostic of the situation as it is.”
The document was missing critical information for dealing with possible emergencies, such as who from the company should be contacted, where rescue teams should enter the site and where helicopters should land, Aguilar said.
The in-country representative of Central Sun was out of the country this week and no one else will be available to comment until the end of the month, company representatives told The Tico Times.
According to Aguilar, the threat to the area’s water is very real.
“It is an immense mass of many hectares that has moved… exactly toward the CiruelasRiver,” he said, adding that at least two other nearby rivers are also within landslide distance.
The CiruelasRiver, he continued, supplies water for the community and for agriculture.
Springs that provide local drinking water could also be buried by eventual landslides, he continued, and the pipelines carrying drinking water to residents run through part of the property.
“It’s logical that movement could break the lines,” he said.
And though the land has not moved in months, he expects that won’t last.
“The moment it begins to rain, the movement will be active again.”
The company, however, has been working on drainage systems inside the mine site. The work is expected to be done by the end of the month, he said.
Villalobos, of the city council, said this week that the local government recently received a report from the mine’s monitoring commission, a group that includes municipal council members as well as representatives from the community, the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) and the Public Health Ministry.
The commission reported that the mine’s operators were “working adequately” to prepare the site for the rains, and had built new roads, he said.
Villalobos, however, remains skeptical. “They are working, but there is a lack of information,” he said.
Villalobos late last month released a statement to media and government warning of the mine’s “latent and imminent danger” to the community, and criticizing the company for doing superficial work.
Citizens raised alarms in late April when the company began to remove equipment from the mine site, in apparent violation of an Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) order. The ministry had told the company to leave an inventoried list of equipment, machinery and materials on the site unless it received express permission from the government.
However, local activists photographed trucks laden with enormous pieces of industrial machinery leaving the site in different directions. Central Sun CEO Peter Tagliamonte told The Tico Times that he was unaware of any order prohibiting him from moving any equipment, saying that equipment had to come on and off as part of the cleanup work there.
Sonia Torres, a long-time opponent of the mine, coordinated with other activists to track the movement of the equipment.
Customs, at Torres’ insistence, detained two of the vehicles. After a visit from officials with MINAE’s Department of Geology and Mines, the vehicles returned the equipment to Bellavista.
MINAE’s mining director, José Francisco Castro, said earlier this month that Central Sun Mining is under investigation for the removal of the equipment (TT, May 2).