E-Tech’s work on large-scale mining in Ecuador has long been a difficult task since we received the 2010 request from the elected Prefect Salvador Quishpe of Zamora Chinchipe to address the environmental impacts of the development of the Ecuacorriente Copper mine in 2010. The chief difficulties have been that politically this open pit copper mine—once Canadian but by then Chinese—is a “strategic” priority of the Correa administration. Located in an incredibly diverse and Shuar-indigenous people dominated region of southern Ecuador in the Cordillera del Condor, the mine has been divisive and potentially environmentally devastating on many levels. A tailings repository is under construction identical to the one that broke and released millions of cubic liters of tailings below the British Columbia Polley Mine, with a dangerous potential not unlike the BHP-Vale mine in Minas Gerais, Brasil that killed between 11-23 people this month. There is also a high probability of acid drainage, earthquake potential (we experienced a moderate one in Loja) and inadequate closure plan and bond accompanied the permitting of the mine by the Ministry of Environment or MAE in 2012.
E-Tech provided intensive consulting on the environmental impact analysis and permitting at the request of MAE but the mine was approved as applied for and has been under development in the years since—though it is not operating. In 2015 they applied to MAE to evaluate an EIA to double their production to 60 000 tons per day of concentrate.
Last year E-Tech made a commitment to make new partners with academia and the professional community of Ecuador for several reasons. One it provides us a legal basis to continue our work in Ecuador, two it can provide a stable source of co-investigators and potentially long-term students who we can assist in training, three we can intensify and more publicly disseminate our work on extractive industries.
On November 16 and 18 we presented models and video images on the potential impacts of the Mirador Mine at seminars on extractive industry strategies to address disaster risks that we co-sponsored in Loja in the Cordillera del Condor and in Quito with state-run EPN, E-Tech, and the Universidad Tecnico Particular de Loja (UTPL—a private Catholic university with campuses around Ecuador). We had set out to publicize the models showing the high potential of spills from the Mirador tailings traveling rapidly at least as far as the Rio Santiago that enters the main tributary to the Amazon, the Rio Maranon in Peru and to the degree possible to establish formal relationships with these academic collaborators. E-Tech disseminated the information before 400 plus people and on the 18th at a Quito ceremony E-Tech signed an agreement to cooperate with geologists, mining and oil engineers at EPN. We are working with UTPL on terms of a second agreement and will also be collaborating with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on oil pollution and drinking water monitoring programs and exploring a possible collaboration with a fourth university.
How effective could these collaborations be? E-Tech achieved broad national press coverage over the earlier Mirador phase–which did not change the actual permitting of the mine–and we will ensure that the news of our recent tailings impacts is disseminated. By working transparently and bluntly and with a high degree of credibility and welcoming industry technical support we may slowly be able to shift the focus from permitting of inadequate facilities by untrained regulators to best practices within mining, even with the caveat that best practices are not always enough. And conceivably influence the young engineers who we expect to do a fair amount of technical legwork with us at EPN. And perhaps pick up an E-Techtechnical team, should funding be available, that can first work with and perhaps for E-Tech. Or we all develop a creative model to work at a credible transparent level that we work. This isnew for all of us and we have dedicated realistic professional partners in Ecuador for the first time. We have proposed the question among these partners: can we prevent environmental disasters by joining forces? And the answer is simply that we are committed to trying.
Finally, copper prices are low, there is no production yet although there will be, there is a new EIA submitted and legal requirements to adequately regulate the mine through the EIA even if the government has historically not been very responsive to these concerns. We also feel that it would be politically useful for the government to receive alternatives to the present technically weak regulation if they enter into a contract with EPN, E-Tech and others as public dissension over Mirador and large-scale mining (and many other issues) grows. Stay tuned as we try and ramp up the work we do on extractive industries in Ecuador.