Tag Archives: mining water pollution

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

Ethical Mining 2020

Less than half of the world’s larger miners have released safety and environmental details about their mine-waste dams, showing the mixed success of investors’ demands for greater transparency after the deadly Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil. In January, 2019, 270 people died following the collapse of a tailings dam owned by Brazil’s Vale SA. The incident prompted a coalition of investors who manage more than $13 trillion to ask 726 companies in the mining and oil-sands business to disclose information on their dams. Nearly 55% of companies hadn’t delivered as of November 2019. While some of the largest miners—including Vale, BHP , and Anglo American have disclosed their information, others have yet to do so. Investors are increasingly examining ethical issues when looking at mining.

Tailings, the waste material from extracting valuable minerals, are often held for decades behind dams that can be risky if they are poorly constructed, ill-maintained or filled with too much waste. Major failures of tailings dams have become more frequent as mining companies ramp up production to meet the world’s growing demand for commodities. Norilsk Nickel one of world’s most valuable miners with a market capitalization of roughly $43 billion, hasn’t publicly released details on its tailings dams. In 2016, heavy rainfall caused a Norilsk Nickel tailings dam in northern Russia to overflow, coloring a local river red. Miners of potash and phosphate—minerals used mainly in fertilizers—have been slow to disclose.

Another big company that has not released details is Canada-based Nutrient. Satellite images show two of the company’s six Saskatchewan mines are located a few miles from residential communities and one neighbors a bird-breeding area. A tailings pond at the company’s North Carolina phosphate mine is located next to the Pamlico River, which feeds into the state’s largest estuary.

In 2017, Israel Chemicals reported that the partial collapse of a subsidiary’s dike in Israel released 100,000 cubic meters of acidic wastewater that flowed into a nearby nature reserve. The wastewater resulted from the production of phosphate fertilizer.Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp.is tied to what is considered one of Canada’s worst environmental catastrophes. In 2014, a British Columbia dam owned by the company burst, sending some 25 million cubic meters of mining waste pouring into a pair of glacial lakes

Large Chinese miners such as Jiangxi Copper, Zijin Mining Group Co.  and Zhongjin Gold Corp. also haven’t shared information with the investor coalition. There are 8,869 documented tailings dams, of which 16% are within about half a mile of a residential area, school or hospital, according to research led by the School of University of Science and Technology in Beijing. Karen Hudson-Edwards, a mining specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said the actual number in China is estimated at around 12,000 dams and there is little transparency on tailings risk in the country. There have been at least 12 serious tailings-dam accidents in China since the 1960s, with one in 2008 killing 277 people, according to the World Information Service on Energy, a Netherlands-based nonprofit.

Alistair MacDonald et al, Many Mining Companies Fail to Provide Waste-Dam Data, WSJ, Dec. 18, 2019

Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Mining Gold and Cyanide Pollution

The $4 billion that two Canadian companies, Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, have poured into developing Pueblo Viejo, a gold mine, since 2009 amounts to the largest single foreign investment in the history of the Dominican Republic. The companies say that the money has turned the polluted ruins of what was the state-owned Rosario mine, abandoned in 1999, into a “truly world-class” operation that should provide the country’s government with $10 billion over its 25-year life.

But the project has been controversial. Just weeks after the mining started in January 2013, President Danilo Medina, who was elected last year, declared: “For every $100 of gold exports, Barrick will receive $97 and the Dominican people $3. That is simply unacceptable.” (In fact, Pueblo Viejo Dominicana Corporation, or PVDC, the company operating the mine, is 60% owned by Barrick and 40% by Goldcorp.) Mr Medina demanded that the contract be renegotiated; otherwise, he said, he would raise taxes on the mine’s profits.

This month the two sides agreed to changes that have front-loaded tax payments and could see the government get an extra $1.3 billion in 2013-16 provided that the gold price rises and stays above $1,600 an ounce (it is now around $1,350). Gustavo Montalvo, Mr Medina’s chief of staff, tweeted: “Together we ensured that words like ‘national sovereignty’, ‘justice’ or ‘transparency’ were transformed into something more concrete.”

Yet that may not calm local unrest over the mine, sited about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Santo Domingo, the capital. The investment was presented by both the government and company as including a clean-up of Rosario’s toxic mess and the installation of systems to keep local watercourses clean. But residents are suing PVDC, claiming that the new mine is poisoning rivers, causing illnesses and the death of farm animals. They want the government to release the environmental-impact assessment for Pueblo Viejo, which it has so far refused to do.

One farmer, María de la Cruz Mariano, said that she began to suffer skin allergies and other ailments in 2010, after PVDC began work. Tests on her blood conducted by a private laboratory showed high levels of lead, sulphur, cyanide and zinc. Some of her cattle have died from bovine anaemia, which can be caused by ingesting cyanide. Other residents report that previously clean local rivers have become polluted since PVDC built a dam to collect water containing cyanide, which is used to leach gold from crushed rock.

PVDC has signed the international code of practice for the handling of cyanide. It says it is “in the process of capturing all the surface flows” from the old and the new mines, sending the water to storage ponds where it is treated. PVDC says that, together with local people, it conducts regular, public tests on water and air.

But community leaders say they have no knowledge of such tests. The company has not answered requests to provide the dates on which they were conducted. Tests by the environment ministry, released only after a freedom of information request, found the water in the Margajita river downstream from the mine to be highly acidic, as well as containing sulphides and copper above legal limits. The ministry has made little effort to act on these results.

The old Rosario mine left some streams red with acid. PVDC’s clean-up obligations extend only within the mine perimeter; the rest was for the government. The firm points out that it has paid $75m ($37.5m of it a loan) to finance the government’s share of the work. It has also removed around 130,000 cubic metres (4.6m cubic feet) of contaminated soil. But Demóstenes Martínez, a congressman from the ruling party, argues that PVDC is violating both the constitution and the mining law.

It is not clear whether the pollution is being caused by PVDC’s operations, or is a legacy of the past. The government claims to have lost records of past tests on the rivers. But on its own the new agreement may not be enough to ensure that the mine regains the consent of the community. That will require greater candour.

Mining in the Dominican Republic:  Sickness and wealth, Economist, Sept. 21, 2013