The Ministry of the Environment (MiAmbiente) awaits the results of laboratory analysis after an accident registered with a pipeline in the area of the Minera Panamá copper exploitation, in the province of Colón.
But, for the moment, there are two facts that have come to light: MiAmbiente did not go immediately to the scene of the accident and the mining company notified two days later, since the regulations allow it.
This was announced this Friday by the head of MiAmbiente, Milciades Concepción, on TVN Noticias.
The spill occurred on July 14, at 3:06 in the afternoon, reported Minera Panama , a subsidiary of First Quantum. The report to the regional office of MiAmbiente in the province of Coclé was two days later, on Friday, July 16, at 2:30 p.m. And four days later, on Tuesday, July 20, MiAmbiente and the Public Ministry went to the place of the facts.
“One of the faults that we find is that within the MiAmbiente procedures, historically, in the emergency and contingency plans, immediate communication is not established. He leaves it open in time, and it is a fatal error, "said Concepción, who added that a ministerial resolution is being issued to establish that accidents like these are reported by the company to the ministry immediately.
The official said that the mining company accepted the freedom allowed by the norm and that, according to its internal processes, this notice is after 48 hours, a fact that Minera Panama also confirmed to La Prensa.
"We focus on our protocol, which indicates first to address the situation, which was quickly controlled, and then to implement mitigation measures," Minera Panama responded.
The spill consisted of 550 cubic meters of material, while the discharge reached 132 thousand gallons, a mixture of water, calcium carbonate and sand, Concepción reported. The communities - which the residents call Chicheme -, on the banks of the river of the same name, and Nuevo Sinaí, were affected by the contamination of the Chicheme stream and the Pifá river. Local authorities counted about 600 people who use this last river for their daily needs –including consumption–, since the aqueduct only supplies 40% of the residents.
Minera Panamá, however, denies this assertion of two local authorities. “The use that the community gives to this river is recreational (washing and bathing), not for consumption. The aqueduct built for the population, with the approval of the Ministry of Health (Minsa
) and, according to the flow capacity, was made more than 3 years ago, when 80% of the community was covered, and the water intake is totally separated, in topographically elevated places of the river,” he affirmed.
He added that actions to improve the aqueduct will be decided shortly, after the visit of Minsa
personnel. "Rest assured that this will end in a fine, and we are going to impose the largest fine allowed by the country's environmental regulations," Concepción told TVN Noticias.
The official specified that there are two investigations that are carried out for this accident: one criminal and the other of an administrative nature.
La Prensa asked the mining company why it disclosed photos of the rivers affected by the spill five days after the accident, when their waters were already practically normal, in contrast to videos and images shared by residents, released almost immediately, when it was the cloudiness of its waters is noticeable. The company responded that the evolution of the incident is documented in the official photos.
“The policy [of the mining company] is, firstly, to communicate to the local authorities in the communities, New Sinai, in this case, and the authorities that govern our operation, as in effect it was done. Once the event is documented and communicated, it is when images of the mitigation measures and solutions that have been given to the issue are shared with the media.”
Despite the fact that the company reported that it had taken mitigation measures, residents of the area expressed concern about the accident. “We are extremely concerned about what happened. This is already precedent in other cases where reports remain inconclusive or the community is never notified of the outcome of investigations. Both the past and present governments do not show greater human sensitivity to these issues, and the mining company always acts as judge and party, ”complained Eliécer Fernández, founder of the organization Defensores de los Recursos Hídricos, to which, since 2015, 16 neighboring communities have joined the copper exploitation.
According to the organization, it is clear that neither the government nor the communities have monitoring procedures for the project. However, they demanded a "convincing explanation" about the consequences of this incident for the environment, as well as clarifications for the population that is within the concession, of 13 thousand hectares. The NGO also warned that it will be vigilant of the outcome of this investigation.
The risk of rupture of these pipes was warned in an inspection carried out in May 2019, by MiAmbiente, according to report No. 028-2019. In this, it was indicated that these pipes did not have shock protection and that, if they broke, they would affect the Caimito River. Precisely, the waters of the Pifá and Chicheme fluvial channels converge to this river.
The aforementioned document concluded that the mining company had 27 non-compliances, "mostly, of recidivism", with respect to audit reports made in the years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Residents warned that this spill would be the third. In fact, an official report from MiAmbiente –dated in July 2018– indicates that “polluting waste and hydrocarbons from the TMF workshop are dragged to the Sinaí creek without prior treatment”, and that the Chicheme creek “is altered, whitish, with odor intolerable."
MiAmbiente inspections of the mining area from 2012 (during the construction of its facilities) until October 2019 revealed more than 200 environmental breaches that affected water and land resources. This is how it is contained in 13 MiAmbiente reports that accumulate more than 300 pages. The company, however, assures that it applies the highest mining standards, and that many of the faults indicated in these reports have been corrected.
"We want to put the following into context: MiAmbiente does not exempt anyone from guilt," said Concepción. He recalled that when he came to office, he found that there had been fouls recorded since 2013, but that they were never processed. But in 2019, “we sanctioned the company with fines, and all of them (10) were paid since 2013. Last year, we opened five cases and they were convicted. They appealed to the courts and the Supreme Court of Justice,” concluded Concepción.