Peru: mine tailing spill contaminates Río Huallaga

Authorities in Peru said Sept. 1 wastewater laced with heavy metals from a giant zinc mine last week spilled into the Río Huallaga, a major tributary of the Amazon. The supervisory body for investment in energy and mining (Osinergmin) reported that a dam at a tailings containment pond gave way at the Atacocha facility in Chicrín province, Pasco region. The mine, at some 4,000 meters above sea level in the high Andes, is majority-owned by the Brazilian company Votorantim. At least seven kilometers of the river are severely contaminated, according to the National Water Authority, which has dispatched brigades to the scene. Local campesino communities that depend on the water are holding emergency meetings to decide how to react to the disaster. (AP, Sept. 4; Perú21, Sept. 3; RPP, Sept. 1)

The Atacocha company’s second zinc and copper facility in Peru, at San Francisco de Asís de Yarusyacán in Puno region, saw a deadly mishap on Aug. 18, when a rockslide left two miners dead and another gravely wounded. (Perú21, Aug. 21)

In response to the disaster on the Huallaga, Peru’s government announced plans to double maximum penalties for companies that pollute—seen as part of an effort to quell popular opposition to extractive projects. “The willingness to at least double the maximum possible penalty [for environmental violations] exists in this administration,” Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told reporters. “We are working hard to stregthen enforcement… We think this is an effective mechanism and that it will send the right message to Peruvians who want the state to enforce its environmental laws.” Current fines can run from 2 million soles ($769,000) to 30 million soles. (Reuters, Sept. 4)