Argentine glacier bill on ice as debate fails

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s lower house failed on Wednesday to debate a bill that would ban mining and oil-drilling on the country’s Andean glaciers, angering environmentalists and supporters of the measure.

Deputies, who approved the broad outline of the bill last month, were due to vote on the details on Wednesday, but the congressional session had to be abandoned because too many lawmakers were absent from the chamber.

The bill has become a political hot potato in Argentina because President Cristina Fernandez vetoed a similar law passed by Congress two years ago.

She said the law threatened the economic development of mineral-rich provinces such as San Juan, where the world’s biggest gold producer, Barrick Gold Corp, is building a large mine high in the Andes mountains.

“They were absent just to play to the interests of Barrick Gold and big miners,” Deputy Miguel Bonasso, who spearheaded the bill, told reporters in Congress.

Both ruling party lawmakers and a few from the opposition were absent from the session. If the lower house eventually approves the small print of the bill, it will pass to the Senate and Fernandez has said she would not veto it this time.

The bill sets standards for the protection of glaciers and surrounding periglacial areas and lays out a system of penalties for pollution and damage to ice fields.

Lawmakers initially clashed over the details of the bill, but Bonasso -- who split from the government over the 2008 veto -- and ruling party Sen. Daniel Filmus reached an agreement to merge two slightly different versions of the proposal.

The vetoed glacier protection law raised questions over Barrick’s vast Pascua Lama mine, which straddles the Chilean border at some 5,000 meters (16,440 feet) above sea level.

The Canadian company has said the project should not be affected if the glacier bill becomes law, saying Pascua Lama’s ore body is not under any ice fields or glaciers.

Environmentalists, who say studies and satellite images show Barrick’s new project is located in a glacial area, criticized Fernandez’s veto of the original law and accused her of pandering to the interests of big business.

Reporting by Luis Andres Henao; Editing by Helen Popper