This gold, silver and copper mine began open-pit mining in 1996-1997, subsequently mining underground and processing material from other mines. The activity has caused ongoing heavy metal pollution of the adjacent river and stores large quantities of cyanide-containing waste.
|Status||Operational underground mine / open-pit mine|
|Concession||Gobierno del Principado de Asturias 24142, 29781, 29962|
The El Valle-Boinás mine was an open-cast operation until 2004, when it switched to underground mining. For several years the plant treated material from this mine as well as from the Carlés and Nalunaq mines in Greenland. Today it continues to mine underground.
|Minerals||Ag Au Cu|
|Rio Narcea Gold Mines, Ltd.||Canada||1996||2007|
|Rio Narcea Gold Mines S.A.||Spain||1996||2007|
|Kinbauri Gold Corp.||Canada||2007||2009|
|Orvana Minerals Corp.||Canada||2009|
|Orovalle Minerals S.L.||Spain||2009|
The mine has caused discharges of heavy metals (selenium, arsenic, mercury, fluorides, zinc, nickel and copper) into the Cauxa river, which flows into the Narcea river above the La Barca reservoir. This has led to several sanctioning proceedings over the years and, at present, an ongoing criminal proceeding in which the Public Prosecutor is demanding a fine of 20 million euros and the closure of the mine for 5 years. The mine is located a few metres from the boundaries of the Peña Manteca-Genestaza Special Area of Conservation (Natura 2000 Network).
The stability of the mine pit slopes, now converted into sludge ponds, has been questioned following successive slope landslides since 2003, the most recent taking place in 2021. The tailings ponds store millions of tonnes of sludge with high concentrations of cyanide, used in ore processing.
One of the ponds, the one currently active, resulting from open-cast mining, is located above a carbonate aquifer (the Cambrian Láncara Formation), so that in the event of seepage this groundwater body would be affected.
Some of the closed tailings dumps are being used as pastures for cattle, despite being contaminated by arsenic and other elements.
The mine has led to the destruction of archaeological sites, including Iron Age and Roman settlements, fortifications and ancient mine workings.
Discharges with heavy metals into the Cauxa river have represented a repeated breach of the conditions of the Integrated Environmental Authorisation. Despite this fact was known to the Administration, officials never revoked the mine's permits.
The initial 1996 project proposed that once open-cast mining ended, water would cease to be pumped so that, with the rise in the water table, the pit would be flooded and a lake would be formed. However, in 2004, a new 'El Valle-Boinás Restoration Project - 2004 Update ' was presented, instead proposing to use the hollow of the El Valle pit as a new sludge deposit. The project received a favourable Environmental Impact Statement and was carried out.
In 2014, the regional ministry for the environment made a decision to modify the integrated environmental authorisation of the 'El Valle' mineral processing plant industrial facility. The aim of the modification was to regularise the discharges that were taking place in relation to which several sanctioning proceedings had been initiated.
Mining companies have sought to generate a favourable state of opinion towards the mine through continuous social engineering campaigns, such as: financing with 48,000 per year and being part of board of trustees of the Asturias Mining Museum, which is visited by schoolchildren from all over the region ; promoting a Gold Teaching Centre in Belmonte; producing school materials ('Mining Kit') together with the Asturian government and the Canadian Embassy ; carrying out annual trout restocking with schoolchildren in the river polluted by the mine; financing an archaeology project on ancient gold mining in the areas where it currently operates.
For its part, the administration has dispensed with mandatory public participation procedures. In 2014, the regional ministry for the environment made a decision to modify the integrated environmental authorisation of the 'El Valle' mineral processing plant industrial facility, but this modification did not undergo a public participation procedure.
Working conditions at the mine have led to numerous serious accidents over the years, several of them fatal (2010, 2011), and some associated with bad practices and the use of subcontractors. The mining companies have faced dozens of court proceedings regarding labour rights and recognition of disabilities.
Workers' unions have carried out successive strikes over violations of workers' rights, denouncing the authoritarian attitude of the company, violations of the collective bargaining agreement or non-compliance with the equality plan.
Successive companies have received substantial public subsidies from different administrations. In 2010 the mining company received a subsidy from the aid programme for the reactivation of the mining districts of the Institute for the Restructuring of Coal Mining and Alternative Development of the Mining Districts, which was the subject of an investigation by the Court of Auditors.
The mining company has also benefited from credits worth more than 3 million euros between 2020 and 2021 from the Spanish Official Credit Institute, as well as subsidies from the Regional Ministry of Employment, Industry and Tourism based on European ERDF funds.
After several administrative sanctioning procedures for discharges processed by the Cantabrian Water Authority, in July 2014 the Environmental Section of the Public Prosecutor's Office of the Principality of Asturias initiated criminal investigation proceedings for a possible offence against the environment and natural resources. In 2015, the investigation concluded when indications of a crime were observed and a complaint was filed with the Court of Grado. The investigation lasted seven years, until 2021, when the oral trial phase began in which the Public Prosecutor's Office demanded a fine of 20 million euros and the stoppage of the mine for 5 years. This was suspended shortly after due to an apparent formal error.