Scientist Faces Criminal Charges Because Environmentalists Didn’t Like His Work

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A prominent glaciologist is facing criminal charges in Argentina after he released a glacier survey that angered environmental activists because it didn’t result in the closing of a gold mine.

A federal judge charged Ricardo Villalba, who headed the Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA), with “abusing his authority and violating his duty as a civil servant,” reported.

The charges stem from a lawsuit brought by Argentine environmentalists who claim Villalba’s 2011 glacier survey “did not comply with a law enacted in 2010 that was designed to give extra protections to Argentina’s glaciers,” reported. The court put a $300,000 lien on his property.

Environmentalists allege Villalba rigged the glacier survey to favor mining interests, but the glaciologist denied the charges. In fact, scientists overwhelmingly support Villalba in the case, saying it’s a politically motivated witch hunt.

“There was no intention to favor mining companies,” Villalba told ScienceInsider. “No Argentinian institution has done more to safeguard and protect glaciers than IANIGLA.”

Villalba’s survey included glaciers of one hectare, about 2.5 acres, or larger, that is the international scientific standard for such surveys. Scientists do this to reduce the risk of counting short-lasting snow and ice.

“It’s surreal and kind of ridiculous,” Bruce Raup, a glaciologist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Raup co-authored a letter supporting Villalba.

“This is dangerous,” Etienne Berthier, a French glaciologist, told ScienceInsider. “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.”

However, environmentalists argued Villalba should have counted smaller glaciers that would have resulted in a government audit of a mine owned by the Canada-based Barrick Gold Corporation.

Had Villalba counted them, activists alleged, regulators would have audited the mine, forcing it to shut down. While shut down, there would not have been three cyanide spills in the past two years, they argue.

“Clearly there is no relationship between the actual mapping and the spill of cyanide,” University of Colorado geographer Tom Veblen, Villalba’s graduate school adviser, said. “Ricardo is being used as a scapegoat, without a doubt.”

When the glacier law passed in 2010, it was met with glee from environmentalists. Villalba actually championed the law’s passage, but now he’s being charged under it.

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández said the law put “excessive” restrictions on mining companies — a major force in the country’s economy — but the law passed over her objections.

The law gave IANIGLA a fair amount of power, putting the group in charge of creating a glacier inventory and vetting mining investments in areas with glaciers. Scientists can even halt mining and drilling operations in glacier zones.

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