updated 2/16/2006 1:38:36 PM ET 2006-02-16T18:38:36

Ambitious plans for an open-pit mine high in the Andes mountains were unanimously approved by a Chilean environmental agency, but the project’s future remained unclear because the agency rejected its most controversial aspect — relocating three glaciers to reach the gold underneath.

The proposed relocation of the glaciers by Barrick Gold Corp. prompted an outcry by environmentalists and some downstream residents, who worry that the mine could poison the Huasco Valley’s rivers — the Pachoi, Huasco and Chollai. Some 6,000 people live in the valley and raise avocado, grapes, olives and other crops, depending on water fed by the glaciers above.

Others in the region want the Pascua Lama mine, saying it would encourage economic development and create jobs.

Company pleased
A spokesman for Barrick, Vince Borg, said the company is “pleased with the decision” Wednesday, which he said was the result of improvements made by the company in a presentation to authorities last December.

“Now, we will take the time to evaluate our next steps,” he told the Associated Press by telephone from Toronto.

Barrick has promised to prevent any damage to the surrounding environment. The company, which refers to the formations as ice masses and not true glaciers, had planned to relocate the ice by truck to reach the gold underneath. It wasn’t immediately clear how the $1.5 billion project can proceed with the ice untouched.

Regional governor Rodrigo Rojas, who leads the environmental agency, said Barrick must also follow through on its promises to treat any water contaminated by its mine and permanently monitor the area’s water quality.

Barrick had said only 0.2 percent of the ice field straddling Chile’s border with Argentina would have to be relocated to reach gold reserves estimated at 17 million ounces with production starting in 2009.

Pollution concerns
Juan Carlos Cuchacovic, a Greenpeace specialist following the Pascua Lama project, predicted cyanide and mercury contamination from the project.

Barrick’s spokesman Vince Borg dismissed those fears, saying the company has “an exemplary environmental record” and has never had an incident related to cyanide.

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