Barrick Gold, one of the most well-known mining companies in Toronto, spilled cyanide solution into five Argentina rivers soon after firing an engineer who caused speculation over safety practices in the mining operation that resulted in the contamination.
The picture you see above is of Peter Munk, the founder and chairman. This story comes as a result of documents obtained by the National Observer.
Senior engineer Raman Autar was dismissed abruptly in 2014 by Barrick in order to “escape publication” of serious health, safety, and environmental violations he discovered at the Veladero mine, which is one of the world’s largest gold mines.
Autar’s lawsuit is ongoing, and has caused an uproar of concern, since his allegations are linked to a valve failure and open sluice gate that released over a million liters of the cyanide solution into the five rivers.
Autar is a New Zealand national and industry veteran that was brought to Canada back in 2013 to serve as “senior manager global maintenance” for Barrick Gold with a salary of over $275,000 as well as annual incentive payments, along with funding for his children’s schooling, and financial help for buying a home in Toronto.
The relationship was severed quickly, however, when Autar shared the alarming discovery that he would end up in court over. He also voiced concerns about “harassment and bullying” at his job. He claims the company fired him for raising his voice.
On March 27, 2015, Autar made it public that he would be suing Barrick Gold for over $10.5 million.
“He was terminated for raising health and safety and environmental concerns in accordance with the Code of Business Conduct and Ethics,” noted the lawsuit, which was filed by the engineer’s lawyer at Shillers LLP in Toronto. “Barrick terminated Autar’s employment to escape the publication of Autar’s report raising environmental infringements at the Veladero mine in Argentina.” Barrick has reportedly chosen to defend itself.
Autar, who moved from Australia to Toronto for the position with Barrick Gold, noted that the company put him in “an emotionally and financially vulnerable position.” And because he was fired without notice and given a mere two weeks’ salary, “psychological stability of his children” and “substantial losses” the family suffered were included in the lawsuit.
Barrick Gold has also created controversy with other community members, politicians, and activists in Chile and Argentina for over a decade.
In 2014, for instance, former Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti and husband Jorge Daniel Taillant, who are the founders of the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CHRE), had to move from Argentina to the U.S. due to increasing pressure against their organization, most notably exposing powerful industrial interests, like that of Barrick Gold’s mining projects at Veladero and Pascua Lama.
“The corporativist nature of the industry is extremely powerful in places like Argentina,” Taillant said. “[Barrick] has deals with public officials, ministers, local politicians, and local commercial actors, and they are all working together and will stop at nothing to see large commercial projects like Pascua Lama reach fruition … and there’s a lot of money and a lot of power behind that money.”
Barrick Gold has invested heavily in the Veladero mine, as it produced 602,000 ounces of gold in 2015 and has an additional 7.5 million ounces sitting in reserve.
Taillant and Picolotti’s advocacy group, CHRE, has been keeping a close eye on the environmental compliance of mining companies in Argentina since 2005. As for why the family eventually fled the country, taking CHRE with them, Taillant said:
“We’ve had death threats against our children and our bank accounts, including our organizational accounts at private banks were suddenly and mysteriously closed for no reason. Since we began going after Barrick, we’ve faced fantastical and baseless accusations in the media and in the justice system. We’ve had our attorneys suspended for absurd administrative reasons and have been anonymously slandered before our funders. We’ve been harassed by the tax authorities and the list goes on and on.
“It’s very difficult to link this ongoing series of attacks against us to a company like Barrick, since most of the slandering and threats follows no traceable path. Finally, we realized that we could no longer safely and effectively do our work in Argentina. When you get smear campaigns against you accusing you of corruption it not only places a stain on your reputation, but it dries up your advocacy financing.”
Barrick Gold claimed Mr. Taillant’s accusations were false and that the company has “never engaged in any such activities.”
Meanwhile Taillant supports Autar’s story, claiming it’s “not surprising” given a company with a terrible environmental record in South America.
And just this year, a provincial Argentine court met Barrick Gold with a U.S. $9.3-million fine for a cyanide solution spill that occurred in September 2015 at the Veladero mine visited by Autar. The spill was ultimately connected to “a frozen valve and a sluice gate that was left open at the time of the valve failure,” according to Barrick Gold, but while the company claimed the event had “no risks to the health of downstream communities,” nine of its most prominent employees were eventually charged in relation to the spill due to mismanagement leading to the contamination of five rivers in the San Juan province.
As for Autar’s concerns, Barrick Gold refused to comment on whether or not they were related to the cyanide spill, but focused on the incident itself:
“The safety of people and the environment is our first priority at all of our operations. Multiple, independent studies, including by the UN, have determined that the Sept. 2015 incident did not represent a risk to the health of communities. Following the process solution release in September, Veladero has implemented a range of improvements to strengthen and improve environmental safeguards to ensure such an incident cannot occur again. Barrick consistently applies industry leading standards at all of its operations and we remain committed to ensuring the environment around our mines is protected.”
Barrick Gold has run into legal issues in the U.S. as well. A New York district judge ruled in March that the company will face a U.S. class action lawsuit regarding the distortion of facts related to the stalled Pascua Lama mine project. The Canadian company is accused of continuously and knowingly misleading shareholders about whether the mine was adhering to environmental regulations.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch has spoken out against the company as well, claiming the inexcusable abuse of Indigenous populations and communities where they have built gold mines in Papua New Guinea, such as home burnings, gang rapes and violent raids.
Nevertheless, Barrick Gold’s website claims the company respects “human rights wherever we do business” and recognizes “the equality and dignity of the people with whom we interact every day.”
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