State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

When Environmental Oversight Takes a Back Seat

Chuquicamata, located in the north of Chile, is the largest open pit copper mine in the world by excavated volume. Photo: Madison Condon
Chuquicamata, located in the north of Chile, is the largest open pit copper mine in the world by excavated volume. Photo: Madison Condon

By Madison Condon

The mining industry accounts for 12 percent of the Peruvian economy and 60 percent of Peru’s total exports. The government of Peru faces significant pressure to encourage growth and investment in this sector, especially in the face of falling commodity prices. But this has also put pressure on the government’s ability to properly assess environmental impacts.

In 2014, the government passed a law limiting the power of the Ministry of the Environment. The ministry now must wait three years before penalizing a company for a breach of environmental safeguards. This change in the law followed a period in which Peru was seen to be strengthening its environmental governance. It had been issuing significantly more fines and penalties on mining companies in response to criticism in 2011 over the firing of employees in the Ministry of Mines who had failed to approve flawed environmental impact assessments.

A 2012 review of assessments revealed that 86 percent lacked proper documentation on how they had received approval from the Ministry of Mines. The Ministry of the Environment continues to lack capacity to thoroughly review each of the environmental impact assessments it approves.

Researchers from the Columbia Water Center recently conducted interviews with Peruvian non-governmental organizations working with communities impacted by the mining industry. Red Muqui is a network of local and country-level organizations that works to create participatory processes for communities impacted by mining to voice their concerns. EarthRights International is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of communities negatively impacted by mines.

Representatives from both organizations echoed a concern that in Peru, many environmental impact assessments, a required part of the mine permitting process, either incorrectly predict the environmental effects of a proposed mine or are approved by the government regulators without a proper consideration of the impact on communities from the predicted environmental changes.

One potential role for advocates and scientists interested in supporting the healthy regulation of the mining industry in Peru would be to provide technical support in third party assessments of the environmental assessments.

Even here in the United States, Kuipers and Maest found that these assessments consistently under-predicted the level of water pollution that would result from the construction and operation of a proposed mine. They found that while all mine assessments predicted total compliance with water quality standards, in reality 76 of those mines exceeded water quality standards once they were in operation. Kuipers and Mast were able to prove that the assessments systematically under-predicted the amount of water pollution because they could compare the predictions with water quality data either measured or required by the federal and state governments. In Peru, however, this monitoring is not guaranteed.

There is a role for activist scientists to evaluate potential sources of heavy metal exposure that result from mining operations. Water samples taken from a stream can be analyzed for concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. The information gained from random sampling could alert authorities that further monitoring was required, or as an advocacy tool, could show that the initial approved environmental impact assessments inadequately predicted the water quality impacts resulting from the mining operation. This concept received enthusiastic support from Peruvian NGOs.

Madison Condon is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Columbia Water Center. She conducts research in water risk in the mining industry and natural resource governance.

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