Andes gold mine brings hope, fear to Colombia

By John Otis

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In a watery tunnel high in the Andes Mountains, mining engineer Giovanny Ortiz points out telltale veins of quartz and pyrite on a rock wall and. Ortiz says the minerals are associated with high grades of gold. This particular vein has 9 grams of gold per ton, Ortiz says. And that's what has attracted the attention of the Canadian company Greystar Resources.

Greystar believes this part of northeast Colombia holds 30 million ounces of gold. That would be worth almost 40 billion dollars at today's prices, and it could turn the region into one of the biggest gold-mining districts in the world. That's led a parade of mining companies to rush in and stake their claims here.

Greystar hopes to get at some of the gold here at what's called the Angostura site with a massive new open-pit mine, which would ultimately grow to nearly one square mile. The company says the project would create 1,000 jobs, and that half of the mine's income would stay in Colombia through royalties and taxes that could be used to build roads, schools and hospitals.

That's music to the ears of people like retired miner Rudolfo Gamboa, who lives in the quiet town of California. Many California residents have already landed jobs with Greystar, and Gamboa thanks Greystar–and the Colombian army–for bringing jobs and progress to the region.

"Without them, this village would be totally deserted," Gamboa says.

That's because before the company opened an office here in 2002, Marxist guerrillas controlled the area and California was a ghost town.

The mine project would cap a striking turnaround for the region. But that doesn't mean everyone supports it. The jobs and royalties from Greystar would last for the 15-year life of the mine, but critics fear the Angostura mine and others to come could cause permanent damage to the paramos.

The project would take a big gouge out of a fragile mountain ecosystem. The site sits among windswept Andean slopes known as paramos, high-mountain areas covered with peat bogs, grasslands and hairy-leafed frailejon shrubs. Together, they act as massive sponges and vital sources of water for many parts of Colombia.

Erwing Rodriguez, who heads the main business association in the nearby city of Bucaramanga, fears that toxic waste could end up in mountain rivers and poison the water supply for the more than 2 million people living in and around the city.

The risks are high because along with the giant pit, the mine will create mountains of waste. Most of the gold here is microscopic flecks trapped in the surrounding rock. To produce just a few nuggets of the shiny metal, tons of rock will be crushed by giant machines, piled in heaps and then leached with a cyanide solution that extracts the gold.

But if mishandled, cyanide and other waste can pollute the air, soil and water.

"Accidents happen," Rodriguez says.

In 1995, in nearby Guyana, an accident at a gold mine sent a torrent of cyanide-laced water into a tributary of that country's main water supply. Meanwhile in Peru, the massive Yanacocha gold mine has been a magnet for protesters who claim it has desecrated the landscape while providing few benefits.

But Greystar president Steve Kesler says that won't happen at Angostura.

Kesler says the Angostura mine will recycle its cyanide-laced water, build well-sealed leach pads and install early-warning systems that can minimize the risk of accidents. And he says the company is already making plans to restore the paramos ecosystem when the mine closes.

It's hard to judge these promises, since Greystar has no operational record. Up to now the firm has been primarily an exploration company.

But ultimately, Kesler says, the choice isn't between this mine and a pristine environment, but rather between what he calls responsible mining and illegal mining.

Illegal mining is rampant in Colombia. Authorities say there are 3,000 illegal mines in the country, and that many are controlled by drug traffickers and guerrillas. Many of the wildcatters use mercury to extract gold, which is a far worse pollutant than cyanide.

Lawlessness prevails because there are just a dozen government inspectors to monitor all of the country's mines. The illegal mines are also dangerous. Last year, 173 Colombian miners died in accidents.

Last month, Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos spoke at a memorial service for 21 miners killed in an explosion and promised deep reforms.

But if the Santos government can't keep track of small-timers, some wonder how it will monitor and control a gold mining industry that could soon double or triple in size.

Consider the confusion already surrounding the proposed Greystar mine.

Gold mining is technically banned in Colombia's high-mountain paramo. But the law is full of loopholes. And the government has already granted exploratory permits for projects covering 10 percent of Colombia's paramos.

The government is expected to decide next month whether to allow the Greystar mine to proceed.