The locals have known it ever since the Canadian-based company Edgewater issued its environmental impact statement on Corcoesto, where it hopes to develop an open-pit gold mine soon. Since then, neighbors have been gathering all sorts of reports on the effects of arsenic, considered a carcinogenic agent. Yet local authorities in Cabana de Bergantiños, who have received repeated notices from the Galician health department since May 7, did not inform residents about the risk. Then, late last week, when public controversy was already a reality following the Galician government's alert, the mayor finally posted a warning sign on the church's bulletin board.
The water from six springs serving the villages of Montefurado, As Lamas and O Dequente, which represent some 75 homes and their corresponding land, has arsenic levels over the legal limit. In some cases, like the Picotos Sur source, the water contains nearly 119 micrograms of arsenic per liter, when the official health limit is set at 10.
Since December of last year, the Galician Society of Natural History has been releasing university reports that find a direct correlation between the old mining activity in Cabana de Bergantiños (a British company's mine was abandoned in 1930) and the arsenic tainting the land and the water. The great risk of the new Corcoesto project, detractors say, lies in the use of cyanide to wash the rock and collect the gold particles, and in the leaching of arsenic into the ground. The gold is contained in arsenopyrite, and it is necessary to pulverize the rock in order to extract it.
EU asked to intervene
The eurodeputy for the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), Ana Miranda, introduced a parliamentary initiative reminding the European Commission that it has yet to fulfill the Parliament's 2010 mandate to ban cyanide-based mining activities. That resolution concluded that a complete prohibition was "the only sure way to protect the water resources and the ecosystems."
The Galician politician also asked Europarliament colleagues for support in getting EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik to talk to the Galician government and demand that it refrain from supporting projects like the one Edgewater is promoting.
Corcoesto has become a symbol of the battle against mega-mining in Galicia because the paperwork is more advanced than in other similar initiatives by foreign companies prospecting the region for gold, silver and strategic minerals for new technologies. "If Corcoesto goes ahead, all the other mines will go ahead," said members of activist groups at a protest march in Santiago de Compostela last Sunday. The association Adega notes that at least 30 mining projects are at various stages of approval in Galicia.
The water contamination figures were already there in a 2011 analysis by Applus Norcontrol that was commissioned by a company called Río Narcea Gold Mines (which later sold its mining rights to Edgewater). Two samples were taken, in March and October, and the results were even more alarming the second time round. The environmental impact report approved by the Environment Ministry in late 2012 reflected these numbers, and it was then that local residents who bothered to consult it found out that they were drinking contaminated water.
Yet nobody, either in the regional or local administration, informed them about it. That is, until the Galician Society of Natural History asked regional authorities about the issue. The environment department is playing it down, claiming that the health limit is calculated "over the long run" and for someone who drinks two liters of water a day for an entire lifetime.
According to the Galician government, the arsenic saturation "has natural origins" and the water should not be used for drinking or cooking, just for washing and showering. Animals can also be affected, but the health department says that raising this particular alert is another agency's job.
On May 31, the same week that he traveled to Brussels with Edgewater representatives to defend the mining project for Corcoesto, local mayor José Muiño also signed the edict recommending that residents stop drinking the water from the Augalavada 2 and Santa Mariña sources (which contain 22.6 and 12.76 micrograms of arsenic per liter, respectively). This same edict warns about the fountains of Augalavada (83.06), As Labradas (13.42), Picotos Sur (118.8) and Picotos Norte o Xabarido (47.9), whose water is used for crops.
The members of the neighborhood association Petón do Lobo now wonder how they are going to tend their fields and care for their animals "with bottled water." The solution proposed by the Galician government is bringing in water from the Anllóns river. But the infrastructure needs to be built, and residents don't want to start paying for something that was free until now. The members of Petón do Lobo have their own ideas. "What they really want is to kick us out and leave an open field for the mining company."