* Top court largely upholds appeals court ruling
* Pascua-Lama environmental license untouched
* Indigenous group had appealed to nix permit
By Erik Lopez
SANTIAGO, Sept 25 Chile's Supreme Court on
Wednesday confirmed a freeze on Barrick Gold Corp's
suspended Pascua-Lama gold mine but the Toronto-based miner
escaped having the project's environmental permit revoked.
The ruling dispels a significant uncertainty surrounding the
controversial project, which now essentially has to complete a
water management system issued by the environmental regulator to
likely be re-activated.
A group of indigenous Chileans had asked the top court to
rescind Barrick's license, arguing that environmental harm at
the complex, which straddles the Chilean and Argentine border,
warranted a re-evaluation of the project.
The group had appealed a Copiapo Court of Appeals ruling in
July that ordered a freeze on construction of the complex, which
is roughly half complete, until the company builds
infrastructure to prevent water pollution.
But the Supreme Court ruled that "the measures issued by
Court of Appeals of Copiapo are sufficient to protect the
constitutional guarantees that have been denounced as violated."
The top court's ruling largely defers to Chilean
environmental regulator SMA, which also suspended the roughly
$8.5 billion project originally forecast to produce 800,000 to
850,000 ounces of gold per year in its first five years of full
"This (ruling) is positive for the project," said Juan
Carlos Guajardo, head of mining think tank CESCO in Chile, who
said a cancellation of the environmental license would have been
"the most complicated scenario" for Pascua-Lama. "This lessens
one uncertainty," he added.
The project's supporters say its environmental impact will
be limited, and that the massive mine will provide employment
and help boost copper powerhouse Chile's mining-dependent
Environmental and social groups counter that the mega mining
project will damage pristine glaciers, strain and pollute the
water supply and harm agricultural activity in the area.
Barrick has stopped construction on the project and
submitted a plan for water management infrastructure to the SMA.
The miner said in June that Pascua-Lama, on which it has already
spent $5.4 billion, had been delayed until mid-2016.
Chile's environmental regulator told Reuters in May the
complex will likely be reactivated in one to two years at the
A Barrick spokesman declined to comment until the company
has reviewed the ruling.
Lorenzo Soto, the lawyer for the indigenous Diaguita group,
said he "regretted" that the permit hadn't been revoked, but
said the freeze ratified by the country's top court was historic
for a massive mining project.
The court orders "an indefinite suspension of the
construction of the Pascua-Lama mining project until all
environmental commitments taken up with the environmental
evaluation system are adopted."
The ruling also calls on the environmental authorities to
"adopt all the administrative measures necessary for the
adequate re-establishment of the state of law that guarantees
the rights of those affected."
The company also has to present all information regarding
the monitoring of glaciers to the SMA, the ruling stated.
Several big mining and power projects have faced legal
setbacks in recent months in Chile, the world's No. 1 copper
Around 60 percent of Chile's export revenue comes from the
metal, but many in the economically stratified country feel
mining profits have bypassed them and hurt the environment and
are increasingly taking their demands to court.