2008-08. Lake Izabal: Majestic Life Source Flowing Towards its Death
August 29th, 2008
August 29, 2008.
Issue: Environment / MiningGuatemala’s largest fresh water body is located just a few miles from its Atlantic Coast. The enormous Lake Izabal measures 45 kilometers in length, 20 kilometers at its widest, and has a surface area of 589.6 square kilometers (366 square miles). (1)“The lake, which suffers from the battering of annual storms, sustains an abundant life system that includes numerous species of fish, crocodiles and other reptiles. The lake’s shores are home and breeding grounds for many bird species such as cormorants, herons, and several mammals. Its waters are also home to the extraordinary manatee (trichechus manatus)… In addition, a rare fresh water shark has also acclimatized itself in Lake Izabal.” (2)
The lake’s lengthy perimeter has been populated for generations by several Maya Q’eqchi’ communities. Fishing activities are of significant importance to the indigenous communities’ nutrition, culture and general lifestyle.
The vital liquid, which provides life to innumerable species of flora, fauna, and entire human communities, also plays an essential role in the mining industry. “Water is fundamental for mining processes, as the large chunks of rock extracted from below the surface contain nickel mixed with other materials such as cobalt and magnesium. In order to separate the elements and collect nickel in its pure form, rocks must be smelt at extremely high temperatures that can reach 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit).” The large quantities of water in the lake are ideal for the cooling process. (3)
Known today as the Fenix Project, the production grounds of the infamous and historic Exmibal nickel mine are located on the edge of Lake Izabal. The mine, operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), which is a local subsidiary of the Canadian mining firm HudBay, is just a few miles outside the town of El Estor. In its web page, CGN confirms that “water from the lake will be used. The quantity is not known at this moment, yet such data is irrelevant since the water will only be used to cool the equipment and then it will be recycled.” (4)
Daniel Vogt, member of the El Estor Association for Comprehensive Development (AEPDI), explains: “even though the concession contract states that the company must return the used water to the lake without any traces of contamination, no clauses exist which determine the temperature at which the water shall be poured back into the lake. Much of the water used in the cooling processes will evaporate due to the high temperatures. But the remaining water could be returned to the lake at an excessive temperature, which could seriously risk the survival of the existing biodiversity.” (5)
The mining contract allows the company to use 10.5 cubic meters (2,774.1 gallons) of lake water per second. “Lake Izabal measures 590 square kilometers (366.6 square miles) and has an average depth of 30 meters. Such space can host 4,676,340,000 gallons of water. This means that the contract allows the company to use the same amount of water which fills up the entire lake in only 19 and a half days.” (6)
In addition, “rigorous mining activities in the past have contaminated the fragile ecosystem around El Estor. One example is the land erosion in the mountainside where most of the indigenous Mayan communities live. The deforestation has caused landslides and a variety of natural disasters. Mayan territories are constantly inundated with chemical waste products and exposed to a number of toxins. Nickel is a noxious substance that can cause cancer if inhaled as fine dust. It is also a heavy metal that contaminates water and leaves residues in the organisms of those who consume it.” (7)
“Throughout the continent, mining conflicts frequently revolve around a water source… According to Robert Moran, PhD in Geological Sciences from the University of Texas, two of the most serious problems arising from mining activities are related to water. The first of these involves the competition for the vital resource – a current drama being played out in communities throughout Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua, among others. The second issue is that once mining activities begin, it is ‘probable that water sources will end up contaminated at some point’. And the cost of purifying water sources is increasing over time.” (8)
“On August 25th, 2008, HudBay placed itself at the forefront of the Fenix Project in El Estor, Izabal, after it finalized its fusion with Skye Resources… Based on current project schedules, production of nickel will begin during the first months of 2009. It is hoped that full production capacity will be reached by 2012.” (9)