Throughout the Spanish geography, different deposits of precious metals survive, preserved through the centuries. Platinum, silver and, above all, gold, are hidden in mines where extractive work is hardly carried out today, but which different companies are trying to 'revive'. Experts agree that, due to its great geological diversity, our country has enormous potential yet to be exploited in a sector full of chiaroscuros, over which the opposition of environmental organizations and public mistrust weigh, but which also represents a juicy economic opportunity. .
Corporate appetite for this business niche is red hot, with Canadian and Australian corporations leading the way. Among the companies that have set their sights on our country is Orovalle, a subsidiary of the Canadian Orvana Minerals Corp., which operates the El Valle-Boinás mine in Belmonte de Miranda (Asturias). Another is Exploraciones Mineras del Cantábrico, belonging to the Australian company Black Dragon Gold, which has presented a project for the exploitation of the Salave mine, in Tapia de Casariego, where it estimates that there are potential resources of more than one million ounces of gold. It has also opted for Spain Minera Águilas, based in Huelva and a subsidiary of the Canadian Pan Global Resources, which has the exploration permits to look for gold in the municipalities of Belmez and Villanueva del Rey (Córdoba).
"The big mining investors, from Canada and Australia, are very interested in what is happening in Spain," says Miguel Cabal, geologist and managing partner of Idemina, a consulting firm in the mining sector. The advantage, he says, is a quick return on investment and a large return on investment. “When it works, it is a business that generates a lot of wealth and the value of the shares skyrockets.” The drawback is the risk. "Nature must accompany, we must check the technical, economic and social viability, as well as obtain permits," he details.
A common formula in the sector is that the first steps of the project are carried out by what are known as 'junior companies', small companies that are usually listed on the stock market and do basic geological research. "They are capable of moving several million dollars in the exploration phase and, normally, once they discover that there is a feasible deposit from the technical and economic point of view, they sell the rights to a larger company," he explains.
Experts agree that Spain is a focus of interest because, from a geological perspective, the potential is great. Ester Boixereu Vila, a geologist specializing in mineral resources at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME-CSIC), recalls that Spain is well endowed with mineral resources due to its great geological diversity. "The potential is very high and, theoretically, we would have to have economic stability for there to be investors, but it seems that we are the only country in the world where finding a gold mine is bad news," laments the expert. She does not understand "the black legend" that accompanies the sector, even less if one considers how guaranteeing the Administration is when it comes to giving the green light to projects. And she defends that gold is a common good for the country, so "there should be a kind of state pact, that the political parties commit themselves to take advantage of our resources rationally."
"There are quite a few possibilities and deposits, but most of them cannot be exploited for environmental reasons or because of the opposition of environmental groups in some areas, such as Corcoesto and Santa Comba, in Galicia," says Manuel Regueiro, president of the Illustrious College Official of Geologists (ICOG), which states that currently the only gold mine in production at the national level is that of El Valle-Boinás, operated by Orovalle. He believes that sometimes "the pressure from environmental groups is so powerful that the authorities do not appreciate mining despite the fact that mineral resources are the wealth of a country." In addition, he emphasizes that mining operations are finite, so that once the resource is exploited, the territory can be restored as required by law.
However, organizations such as Ecologistas en Acción are very critical of this activity. "The extraction of a ton of gold generates 99 tons of land that turns into waste, ends up abroad and pollutes the environment," warns Cristóbal López Pazo, coordinator of the mining area of Ecologists in Action, who also complains about the ' modus operandi' of companies. “In almost all the mines, the one asking for the exploitation is a small company that sells the rights. When everything goes well, the matrix announces it so that the value of the shares rises, but when there is a problem, it goes bankrupt. The mine remains in the hands of the State if it is capable of doing so or the population of the area has to put up with this contamination or the degradation of the environment », he denounces. He gives as an example what happened in Monte Neme (Galicia), an old tungsten mine, where the Xunta had to assume responsibility. From the organization they advocate looking for alternatives, such as obtaining gold from the recycling of telephones or other electronic devices.
Despite the position of the environmental groups and the fear of a part of the population, Miguel Cabal, from the Idemina consultancy, stresses that, with the current regulations, it is not possible to act in an unsustainable way. «The Mining Law is old, but the laws that oblige us to behave as civilized people are later. The regulations applicable in Spain, both in terms of the environment and water, are transposed from European directives », he recalls. On the other hand, he says that sustainability is one of the issues that investors scrutinize the most: "They don't want problems due to an accident or because there is a war with the neighbors, since it affects the value of the shares."
But the controversy continues. And as a sample button what was experienced in Tapia de Casariego, which houses the Salave deposit, from which the Romans already took advantage and in which there have been different failed exploitation attempts. The last one, starring AsturGold, who saw how his initiative fell on deaf ears. In December 2014, the Commission for Environmental Affairs of the Principality of Asturias issued a negative Environmental Impact Statement due to unfavorable reports from the Cantabrian Hydrographic Confederation, a veto endorsed a posteriori by the Superior Court of Justice of Asturias.
After the setback, there were those who gave up the possibility of extracting gold from this enclave. Nothing is further from reality. Exploraciones Mineras del Cantábrico has presented an underground extraction project together with the environmental impact assessment, which has to be assessed by the administration for its eventual authorization. "We are talking about a gold deposit with a significant size and economic potential, which will undoubtedly bring wealth not only to Tapia de Casariego, but to all the surrounding Asturian and Galician communities," says José Manuel Domínguez, general director of the company.
The development of the works would last between 15 and 20 years, including the restoration period. «The project avoids the inconveniences of previous proposals through the use of modern and proven technology, which ensures the sustainable development of the project, limiting its impacts during its life, reversing any effect with comprehensive rehabilitation measures in the area of action, to achieve the safety of the activity in the long term", he adds.
Neither the 150 direct jobs (between 1,000 and 2,000 indirect) announced nor the initial investment of more than 100 million euros have been enough to convince his detractors. Neither does the company's promise that the operation is conceived "with a strong commitment to the environment, which guarantees environmental sustainability, in accordance with the company's commitments and with the demanding regional, Spanish and European legislation."
From Ecologists in Action, one of the organizations opposed to the project, allege reasons for concern, such as possible effects on the water environment. “The exploitation would be located under the Salave lagoons, considered of some interest and where there is vegetation. In that operation, they would work dry, with which they would have to pump water and we think that the lagoons would very likely disappear, "warns the geologist Beatriz González, from Ecologists in Action Asturias. “On the other hand, the discharges that they intend to make into the sea through an underwater outfall would have concentrations of heavy metals and said outfall would be 400 meters from the coast, not 800 meters as the company says, so it is an unacceptable risk. ». She adds that the operation of the mine would harm activities that are carried out in the area such as artisanal fishing, organic farming or extensive livestock.
Residual silver and platinum
Gold is the crown jewel of precious metals, although precious metals such as silver were also mined in the past. "Guadalcanal, in Seville, was a late discovery, but it was a very rich mine," says Ester Boixereu Vila (IGME-CSIC). In Cartagena, she says, there were important areas where silver was extracted from the Romans until the last century. “It is a precious mineral that appeared in the lead deposits in Almería and Extremadura, for example, but now that lead is no longer produced, it is not profitable to produce silver,” says Manuel Regueiro. Regarding platinum, Boixereu Vila speaks of the Marbella area and the Aguablanca mine (Badajoz), the latter of nickel, but also with the presence of platinum, which could be exploited.
The vision of Exploraciones Marinas del Cantábrico is very different. "We have presented a project from the conviction that it is possible to develop an environmentally sustainable and economically viable mining operation with the overall objective of achieving zero risk in the long term." Specifically, its general director highlights that one of the differential aspects is its proposal to "respect and protect the sensitive riverbeds of the area and their associated ecosystems, opting for the installation of an outfall to direct the natural water without altering extracted of the subsoil, avoiding discharges to them». In this way, he adds, "impacts on groundwater are protected and avoided by not coming into contact with mining activity, pumping them directly into the sea through the outfall, which will lead them 800 meters from the coast and 17 meters deep" ... Wrapped in controversy, the thirst for gold resurfaces in Spain with environmental approvals as the great stumbling block to overcome.