At issue is an open-pit gold mine planned for the quaint town of Miramar, named for the view of the nearby Gulf of Nicoya. Miramar is typical of the Costa Rican countryside with lush vegetation, steep hills, abundant biodiversity, and clear rivers. It is now threatened by the quest for gold as Canada’s Glenncairn Inc. forges ahead with plans to excavate ores that lie deep within the mountain.
As part of its collaboration with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), the Earthjustice International Program has been working on this case since December 2000 when we prepared a detailed analysis of the adverse environmental and economic impacts expected from the mine. Although the authorities issued the permit to develop the mine, the proponents immediately suspended the project. Shortly thereafter, Costa Rica declared a complete moratorium on any new gold mines in the country.
"Unfortunately, with the rise in gold prices Glenncairn has decided to reactivate the project in spite of its clear environmental risks," said Cederstav. "If the company succeeds, it will be the first to bring environmentally destructive, large-scale open pit mining to Costa Rica. In addition to digging a vast crater in the mountain and risking severe acid mine drainage problems, Glenncairn intends to use toxic cyanide to leach the gold from the rock. In a country with tremendous rainfall and a near certainty of mine-site floods, the consequences could be devastating."
Local environmentalists and community members have already seen ground water resources cut off as a result of the preparatory work at the mine, and rightly fear the long term impacts of the mine. They filed suit on March 22, 2004, arguing that the company does not have the appropriate Municipal and Health Ministry permits, that an appropriate Environmental Impact Assessment has not been carried out, and that the project violates the Costa Rican Constitutional Right to a Healthy Environment.
The Supreme Court ruling provides the groups with an important partial victory. The Court ordered the Ministry of Environment and other authorities to: establish protective boundaries to safeguard ground water resources; carry out studies and adopt the measures necessary to insure appropriate handling of all toxic chemicals at the mine; conduct appropriate studies to assess the risk of acid mine drainage (AMD); take all necessary measures to prevent AMD impacts in both the short and the long term; and conduct monthly inspections to insure compliance with all environmental requirements at the mine.
Thus, the ruling provides an important opportunity for the authorities to reexamine the project and consider its viability in light of the special environmental conditions in Costa Rica, and the clear national commitment to economic development without reliance on mineral exploitation. If the political will exists, it is not yet too late to save this beautiful area; whereas mine site preparation is underway, the real impacts come when excavation begins and the sulfur and toxic metal-containing ore is exposed to the atmosphere.