Google Evidence Arms Argentine Groups Against Andes Mines

Argentine environmentalists won their first court ruling against gold mining in the Andes based on Google Earth images of glaciers, which they say creates a precedent for injunctions against other projects.

Osisko Mining Corp., a Canadian company, was ordered to halt its gold exploration project in La Rioja province on July 18 after Judge Daniel Flores ruled that Google Inc.’s digital satellite images showed four glaciers in the area.

“Google Earth clearly shows that there are glaciers in the area and thus I ruled to halt any kind of mining activity,” Flores said in a telephone interview from La Rioja city. “I granted the injunction without hearing arguments from Osisko or the government of La Rioja because thanks to the Google images I found veracity in the claims.”

The injunction sets the stage for environmentalists to use similar images on gold mining projects such as Xstrata Plc’s Alumbrera and Barrick Gold Corp.’s Pascua-Lama project, on the border of Argentina and Chile, said Enrique Viale, president of Argentina’s Association of Environmental Lawyers.

“This ruling paves the way for new injunctions using this technology,” Viale, who’s assisting Greenpeace and other environmental groups in seeking injunctions against the Pascua-Lama project and Alumbrera mine, said in telephone interview from Buenos Aires.

Flores’s injunction suspended an agreement signed last year between the provincial government and Osisko until a federal regulatory body completes an inventory of glaciers in the Famatina area, in the foothills of the Andes. The national glacier inventory was ordered in a 2010 law that the Argentine Supreme Court backed as constitutional earlier this month.

‘Not Affected’

Andy Lloyd, a spokesman for Barrick, declined to comment beyond the company’s July 6 statement, in which it said that construction at Pascua-Lama and mining activities at its Veladero operation in Argentina were not affected by the Supreme Court decision and that both were in compliance with existing environmental approvals. Argentina’s national glacier agency participated in the environmental approval for Pascua-Lama, the company said in the statement.

Xstrata is not aware of any lawsuit having been filed against the company in relation to the Argentine national glaciers protection law, spokeswoman Emily Russell said by e-mail.

John Burzynski, a spokesman for Osisko, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Osisko, which started production last year at its Quebec gold mine, said Jan. 30 that the Famatina project is in its early stages and it hasn’t yet made any significant financial investment.

Google Evidence

The Google Earth images were presented as evidence in the case filed by Ismael Bordagaray, the mayor of Famatina city, with the backing of environmental group CEDHA.

“This ruling is a leading case,” said CEDHA’s research director Jorge Taillant in a phone interview from San Juan province. “I was called to come here because a local foundation wants our support to file similar injunction requests.”

The group is targeting projects in Argentina operated by Stillwater Mining Co., Malbex Resources Inc. and NGEx Resources Inc., Taillant said. The requests will be filed with local judges, as was the case with Famatina, Taillant said.

Malbex Chief Executive Officer Joe Hamilton, Amanda Strong, a spokeswoman for NGEx, and Mike Beckstead, a spokesman for Stillwater, didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Flores said there’s little room for an appeal of these kinds of injunctions.

“The affected parties can only file a nullity request, which is unlikely to be accepted,” he said.

‘Vague Law’

Barrick, the world’s biggest gold producer, suspended exploration in the Famatina area in 2007, following local protests against potential environmental damages caused by the use of cyanide, a toxic chemical compound used to separate gold from ore.

“The Glacier law is so vague in its glacier and peri-glacier definition that foreign companies will be cautious in making investments,” Hernan Zaballa, Barrick’s legal adviser in Argentina, said in a phone interview from Buenos Aires commenting the Supreme Court ruling that ordered the inventory be completed.

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