Petaquilla hit with maximum fine, partial restitution, market rejection
by Eric Jackson
Richard Fifer’s Petaquilla Minerals, the parent company of Petaquilla Gold, which runs the illegal Molejon gold mine, has been hit by the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) with the maximum million-dollar fine for violating environmental laws and ordered to pay $934,694 in restitution for those affected by its road building and strip mine development activities, which have been carried out without an environmental permit or any of the ordinarily required damage control measures. Runoff from Petaquilla’s operations has silted streams, damaging fisheries and muddying surface waters upon which people and farm animals depend.Despite the lack of approval for its activities, the company is threatening in international press releases to begin gold production in December, which will mean the introduction of cyanide and mercury into the environment. These toxic chemicals are used to separate gold from the quartz in which it is embedded. Though the norm is to build a retaining pond for toxic residues from the separation process, the usual thing in Panama has been that at the height of rainy season these ponds overflow and mining companies say that the resulting fish kills and long-term heavy metal contamination of streams and rivers are “acts of God.”A movement of farmer, community, environmentalist and Liberation Theology Catholic groups that has for a number of years been doing battle with Fifer and Petaquilla has denounced ANAM’s restitution order as “really ridiculous” because it’s only based upon the cost of reforestation of the big hole that Petaquilla is digging at El Molejon and doesn’t contemplate the degradation of water quality stretching along streams and rivers and running out to the Caribbean Sea.
ANAM has ordered a stop to all operations in all Petaquilla mining concessions. Fifer split the original Petaquilla concession in northern Cocle and western Colon provinces into Petaquilla Gold, which he still controls, and Petaquilla Copper, which was taken over in a hostile process by Canadian-based Inmet and has changed its name to Minera Panama. The copper concession is much further from production and its Canadian proprietors are less prone to outright defiance of Panamanian environmental laws than is Fifer. The latter has been blessed by the support of President Torrijos, even in the face of charges that Fifer embezzled public funds as governor of Cocle during the Moscoso administration and Fifer’s brazen defiance of ANAM and the courts. Petaquilla, however, was one of the main reasons why the US Congress adjourned its lame duck session without taking up the US-Panama free trade pact ratification. Yes, the Torrijos administration agreed back in 2007 that environmental laws would be enforced, but the timing of the latest action against Petaquilla only on the eve of the post-election congressional session bore all the hallmarks of insincerity and, along with President Bush’s pleas, it was ignored on Capitol Hill.
President Torrijos doing a Palacio de las Garzas publicity photo with Fifer, left, and a Petaquilla publicity