Goldcorp spins science in Guatemala

21Jun10

It’s no secret that Canadian mining companies operating abroad have long been criticized for operating unsustainable and outright harmful mines in the developing world. Critics are usually from the affected areas, and often the claims made against companies don’t maintain much momentum by the time they reach Canadian ears.

But there’s a storm brewing in Guatemala, and it might be making the people at Goldcorp, Canada’s second-largest gold mining company, nervous. The company’s defence against the most recent allegations against its operations is shaky at best.

A couple of weeks ago, the Globe and Mail wrote a story about a mine operated by one of Goldcorp’s Guatemalan subsidiaries. It was picked up by a couple of wire services, but was never front-page news in Canada.

[Goldcorp’s] Marlin mine in Guatemala has been dealt an adverse ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has called on the project to be shut pending an investigation into alleged human rights abuses and environmental problems.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a body associated with the Organization of American States. Its request that the Guatemalan government shut down the mine, which is located in San Miguel Ixtahuacán and operated by a local Goldcorp subsidiary, is obviously quite serious. Naturally, Goldcorp mounted its defence in a press release.

“Goldcorp believes the IACHR’s action is based on environmental allegations that are entirely without merit.”

The release’s language took no prisoners.

“The existing scientific data and analysis clearly demonstrate no pollution or ill effects to health and the environment as a result of the mine’s presence,” said Chuck Jeannes, Goldcorp President and Chief Executive Officer.  “This documentation is freely available and provides a compelling basis for the Guatemalan government to request the IACHR to withdraw its action.  We are proud of Goldcorp’s record of safe, responsible operations at Marlin, and of the positive contributions it has brought to the area and to the country.  We welcome this opportunity to demonstrate once again our commitment to operating responsibly and with complete transparency on behalf of all stakeholders.”

The data clearly demonstrate. The documentation provides a compelling basis. The company is proud. Its operations are safe and responsible. It makes positive contributions. The company will again demonstrate commitment to, among other things, transparency.

People do like to hear that companies are safe, responsible, committed, transparent and, of course, contributing to something positive. But Goldcorp only selectively cited the data to which it referred.

One source of data Goldcorp cites in the press release was provided by Physicians for Human Rights. That’s a group that was founded in 1986 and, according to its website, is “uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them.” They might not be overstating; after all, PHR was a big part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

It sounds like a group you want on your side. But how did Goldcorp even know about PHR’s work?

Well, PHR sent a team of researchers down to the Marlin Mine “at the request of the Independent International Panel on the Human Rights Impacts of the Marlin Mine, a four-member panel composed of three academics from the Center for Civil and Human Rights of Notre Dame Law School and a lawyer from Oxfam Americas.”

(That independent panel, which was formed at the request of the Archbishop of Guatemala, shouldn’t be confused with the aforementioned Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.)

PHR came back and wrote a report. And after Golcorp cited its own annual reports on its operations, the company paraphrased PHR’s findings. In the press release, Goldcorp says PHR “reported levels of heavy metals in individuals near the mine that do not exceed reference limits and that soil and water samples taken near the mine are also within international standards.”

In essence: A team of scientists told us that there is no conclusive evidence that the mine hurts people. The problem is that’s not really what that team of scientists said.

I called PHR to get more information, and ended up speaking to Nil Basu, the lead author of the report.

Basu said Goldcorp’s reference was “only half-true,” because “there’s a lot more to our results than what they pulled from it.”

Basu said that PHR found evidence that people living closer to the mine experienced higher levels of heavy metals in their bodies than those who lived further away. As Goldcorp pointed out, none of those levels were high enough to pose problems on their own.

“Goldcorp is right that none of the metals themselves are of levels of concern,” Basu said. “But if you take a step back and look at the situation, there are several things that are of concern.”

He pointed to two main concerns raised in his team’s report.

“The mine is at a relatively young age, and what we know from mining facilities from all over the world is that there is a strong potential that exposures will increase over time,” Basu said. “The second thing that is of concern is that all the risk thresholds that we alluded to are designed for single chemicals, and they don’t account for the fact that chemicals occur as mixtures.”

The PHR team’s study was very limited, and Basu admitted that several times. He pointed out that his team didn’t let Goldcorp off the hook; indeed, PHR called for further study of some of their findings.

Basu couldn’t comment on any conversations that have happened between PHR and Goldcorp since the report was published. But he did say informal discussions have occurred, just as they have occurred with the Guatemalan government.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to Goldcorp’s mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán. It’s also not clear whether or not further research will be conducted by PHR. Basu did say the vice-president of Guatemala told PHR that it should be the first group to conduct further research, based on its record as an objective team.

Final note: Goldcorp hasn’t called me back about this. But when the company does provide comment, I’ll post it here.

POST-SCRIPT:

Marilyn Scales at the Canadian Mining Journal is perplexed by the controversy surrounding Goldcorp’s mine. The company acquired the mine in 2006 when it purchased Glamis Gold. “So Goldcorp tucked a contentious property into its portfolio,” she writes, “making itself the target of continuing complaints.”

Otherwise, Scales believes, Goldcorp has a strong record on human rights.

Goldcorp is not one of the bad guys. At its other operations the company enjoys a reputation as a responsible mine owner in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Chile and Argentina. But should it lose its social licence in Guatemala, it will be seen as a rousing victory for anti-mining activists. News of what Goldcorp does well will be obliterated.

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2 Responses to “Goldcorp spins science in Guatemala”

  1. I really love this blog… Such great posts all the time!

  2. 2 Gordo

    Remember when Tony Hayward said the oil spill damage was going to be very modest?


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