Set among dense green foliage and steep hills, the San Sebastian River, La Union department in eastern El Salvador runs a light orange color, depending on the extent of rainfall. It has variously also flowed anything from a pale yellow to a deep orange. The San Sebastian is a ‘dead’ river, in that no life exists within it, and its water is poisonous to drink. The unnatural color of the San Sebastian River is a consequence of ‘acid mine drainage’, which conventionally includes sulfuric acid, arsenic and iron oxide (often referred to as ‘yellow boy’), along with other possible poisonous trace elements. The acid mine drainage to the San Sebastian River derives from a stream the starts among the steep slopes above the village of San Sebastian, adjacent to a formally abandoned gold mine. A visit to the mine site clearly showed where the surface run-off from the mine site occurred, although acid mine drainage also occurs underground and leaches out of the soil along the hillside into the stream.
According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the river carries nine times the maximum permissible level of cyanide, approximately 1,300 times the permissible amount of iron (MARN 2012) and an unknown but certainly toxic level of arsenic.
The stream itself was a bright, almost luminous orange color, feeding directly into the San Sebastian River, which itself flows into the Gorascoran River. This river marks the eastern border between El Salvador and Honduras and then flows into the Gulf of Fonseca, also shared by Nicaragua, where it poisons the local fish stocks. Not only is the water from the San Sebastian poisonous, the community of San Sebastian says that it suffers a very high level of quite specific illnesses usually associated with arsenic and metals poisoning (see Zarraga 2014:41 for detailed account of the numerous chronic illnesses associated with arsenic poisoning, also Ventura 2011), and is required to truck in drinking water. For an impoverished community, this represents a great, almost unbearable, expense.
Not only does acid mine drainage seep from the mine above the village but, sitting abandoned in unsecured and deteriorating shipping containers, are approximately 23 barrels containing both sodium cyanide and iron sulfate, also used in gold mining. There is believed to be enough cyanide in the containers to kill approximately a half a million people.
In a country in which there has been little gold mining, the San Sebastian mine and its consequences stand as a stark illustration of what can happen when there is a confluence of a highly toxic industry, a vulnerable topography, high population density and generalized water shortage. It is, in short, a human and ecological disaster, which retains the potential to become very much worse.
A case in point of a possible new and much larger project is the El Dorado gold mining project in Cabañas district, which was initiated by Pacific Rim and upon takeover was assumed by the Australian-headquartered company OceanaGold. As a consequence, there has developed a popular movement against further gold mining – indeed all mining – in El Salvador, now supported by the government, which has by refusing to grant new permits declared a moratorium on the granting of mining permits. The government of El Salvador has to the time of writing refused to issue a permit for the mine to commence exploitation, based on strongly held environmental concerns and the fact that the predecessor company, Pacific Rim, failed to complete the necessary environmental and feasibility studies required by law. These concerns focus in particular on the pollution of both regional water supplies and, via its watershed, the main (64 per cent) water supply for El Salvador of the Lempa River. This moratorium is now confronted by an international mining industry that wishes to pursue mining in the country, regardless of local opposition, and which has taken the country to international legal arbitration in an attempt to force the issue. This paper examines some of the issues that have led to this dispute.
This article has been published on The Conversation 11th May.
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A new national agreement designed to protect water resources from coal seam gas extraction and coal mining could offer a level of protection so far unseen in Australian environmental legislation. Any states serious about protecting water for farming and the environment should be signing up.