A dump truck carrying minerals at the Veladero gold mine in Argentina.

MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS/Newscom

Argentine scientist indicted over design of glacier inventory

A prominent glaciologist, Ricardo Villalba, has been indicted on criminal charges for allegedly favoring a mining company as a consequence of how his former institute designed Argentina’s national glacier inventory.

The 27 November federal criminal court indictment also includes three former environment ministers. All four have been charged with “abuse of authority” for failing to protect water sources under a 2010 law aimed at preserving glaciated areas. The law prohibits mining in those areas.

The lawsuit was filed by a grassroots group after the Veladero mine in northwestern Argentina spilled cyanide into the Jáchal watershed in September 2015. Another spill in the same area occurred this past September.

Villalba, who led the National Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA) in Mendoza from 2005 to 2015, launched Argentina’s first comprehensive glacier inventory in 2012. Based on satellite images, the inventory set a minimum glacier size of 1 hectare. “The process of making that inventory wasn’t unusual. That size cutoff is standard practice,” says Bruce Raup of the University of Colorado in Boulder, who is also director of the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space project, an international glacier monitoring project. Argentina’s inventory includes 30 ice masses covering about 400 hectares in the Veladero area, Villalba says.

The indictment argues that the 1-hectare limit and the lack of an on-site inspection led to “the exclusion—and resulting lack of protection—of many bodies of ice” around Veladero that should have been considered priorities because of their importance as water sources.

Villalba is sympathetic to the local group’s complaint about mining pollution, but says the court case should have targeted those responsible for the pollution or mining oversight, not IANIGLA. “There was no intention to favor mining companies,” Villalba told ScienceInsider. “No Argentinian institution has done more to safeguard and protect glaciers than IANIGLA.”

Diego Seguí, a lawyer for Jáchal No Se Toca in San Juan, Argentina, which filed the complaint, notes that the group did not specifically name Villalba or the other officials. However, under Argentine law, criminal charges apply to Villalba as an individual, not to the agency he led. The judge ordered a lien on Villalba’s property of nearly $300,000 and ordered him to remain in Argentina.

Colleagues around the world have come to Villalba’s defense with letters of support for the inventory methodology and IANIGLA’s work and a petition backing him. “This unbelievable story illustrates a lack of trust and growing defiance of the policymakers and general public toward scientific results. This is dangerous,” says Etienne Berthier, a glaciologist at French national research agency CNRS in Toulouse. “A highly detrimental result could be that scientists would stop expressing themselves in public at a time where their expertise is more and more needed.”