The mining industry puts lives at risk with shoddy maintenance of dams built to contain mining waste.
By The Editorial Board, The New York Times, January 31, 2019
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section
After the catastrophic rupture of a mine-tailings dam in Brazil last week, leaving behind at least 110 dead, 238 missing and an environmental disaster of epic proportions, the police were quick to arrest five people who had been responsible for inspecting the dam and who most recently proclaimed it “stable.” Certainly they had erred, and courts will decide whether they did so criminally. But rounding up the usual suspects does not begin to address responsibility for a disaster of this scale and a danger many mining communities face around the world.
Tailings are the wet waste from mining operations, often laced with toxic chemicals. At thousands of mines around the world, millions of tons of the muck accumulate behind dams. The most common type of dam — and the cheapest to build — is known as “upstream,” made by piling up thick sludge and raising the height of the dam as the pond grows. At the mine where the accident occurred in southeastern Brazil, owned by the giant mining company Vale, the dam was 28 stories high.
The danger posed by tailings dams is well known. Three years ago another upstream dam in the same Brazilian state, Minas Gerais, and co-owned by Vale and Australia’s BHP Group, collapsed, killing 19 people. The muck from that mine flowed 400 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Other dams have collapsed in many countries around the world, and while the overall number of failures each year has been declining, the occurrence of major collapses has increased. According to the database World Mine Tailings Failures, there were 46 “serious” or “very serious” collapses — such as those in Brazil — between 1998 and 2017.
One reason is increased rainfall because of climate change, which can erode a dam wall years after the tailings pool is no longer in use. One study found that heavy rain was cited as a contributor to a quarter of global dam failures. Given that there are thousands of tailings dams around the world, and that mining companies generate ever more waste — they produced 8.5 billion metric tons in 2017, more than double the amount in 2000, according to an Australian researcher — the dams pose a danger that arresting a few workers won’t address.
The cost of failures is high, as Vale is learning. Shares in the company plunged 24 percent on the Monday after the Friday accident, and Vale is likely to face billions of dollars in penalties. That cost alone should propel Vale and the rest of the mining industry to take an immediate look at the way that they dispose of mining sludge and to inspect their dams. A joint report in November 2017 by the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian foundation GRID-Arendal found that in most failures, there had been ample advance warning signs. “The tragedy is that the warning signs were either ignored or not recognized by under-resourced management,” the report said.
After the 2015 accident in the state of Minas Gerais, state and federal investigators urged hiring more dam inspectors. But the federal government slashed budgets, in effect leaving Vale and other companies to do their own monitoring. It’s far from certain that the government will do better this time: Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already hobbled environmental regulators, and his infrastructure minister has warned against the “demonization” of Vale.
Vale, by contrast, has been quick to pledge changes. Fabio Schvartsman, its chief executive, said Tuesday that the company had decided to stop operations at mines where another 10 upstream dams were still in use until all were fully decommissioned, a process likely to take one to three years. The dam that burst last week had been out of use for two and a half years, he said, and was in the process of being decommissioned.
The global mining industry should take heed. It is clear that the industry needs to take a close look at upstream dams, to establish strict international standards for the way they are built and inspected and to study alternative ways to dispose of their wastes.
MINING.com Staff | Jan. 30, 2019, 4:45 PM |
A partnership of First Nations, exploration companies and provincial government representatives is working well, as the three groups collaborate to progress mineral exploration and mining in northwest British Columbia.
That was the message behind a panel discussion Tuesday at Roundup 2019, inside the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver.
The four-day annual event is a chance for mineral explorers, mining company employees, members of government, mining suppliers, geologists and academics to exchange ideas, technologies and project updates.
At The Gathering Place, a room fronted with a traditional longhouse, a series of presentations centred around dialogue meant to foster mutually beneficial relationships between indigenous groups and the mining industry.
The last session of the morning featured an update on the BC Regional Mining Alliance (BCRMA). A panel hosted by Dave Nikolejsin, deputy minister of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resource, included:
All four juniors are working in the "Golden Triangle", an area that was the site of three gold rushes and some of Canada's greatest mines including Eskay Creek, Snip and Premier. Snip and Eskay Creek were high-grade mines, with Snip producing at an unheard of, in today's terms, 27.5 grams per tonne during the 1990s. Eskay Creek at one time was Canada's highest-grade gold mine and the world's fifth largest silver producer.
The Golden Triangle however is remote, and when metals prices slumped, exploration activity dwindled. The BC government created renewed interest in the area with the building of new infrastructure – the 335-km Northwest Transmission Line, a three-dam hydroelectric facility, and the paving of the Stewart Cassiar Highway north from Hazelton. Glacial recession has also played a factor in uncovering prospective mineral terrain.
Tahltan President Chad Day said joining the Regional Mining Alliance was a way for the Tahltan to strengthen bonds with the Nisga’a Nation – who signed BC's first modern-day treaty in 2000. He noted that hundreds of Tahltan are working in mines and mineral exploration, bringing home an annual $20 million a year, not counting revenue sharing from mines and provincial tax credits.
He also sees RMA membership as "an opportunity to further increase capacity, by getting a more holistic understanding of the industry by being able to go to government, by being able to go with these exploration companies to understand the reality they face, when they need to go to the outside world to talk to investors, to live that lifestyle of a junior exploration company."
IDM Mining recently received an Environmental Assessment Certificate (EA) from the provincial and federal governments for its Red Mountain Gold Project.
"Working with Nisga’a as a third level of government throughout the process was wonderful to get all the impact, traditional knowledge and economic considerations so we're really happy to be part of it and we hope to continue for them to grow," said CEO Rob McLeod.
BC Premier John Horgan announced another $1 million for the BCRMA on Monday, speaking at the opening of Roundup.
The Conversation, January 29, 2019 2.50pm EST
Authors: Julian D. Olden Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington
Jean Vitule Ecology Professor, Universidade Federal do Paraná (Brazil), Paulo dos Santos Pompeu Associate Professor, University of Lavras, Brazil, Thiago B. A. Couto Doctoral candidate, School of Aquatic and Fishery Science, University of Washington, Thiago Vinicius Trento OcchiFreshwater Ecologist, Universidade Federal do Paraná (Brazil)
After 48 hours of frantic effort, Brazilian rescue workers have called off their search for survivors at a collapsed dam in Minas Gerais state. AP Photo/Leo CorreaAuthors Disclosure statementThe authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Brazilian rescue workers continue searching for more than 300 people missing after a dam burst at an iron ore mine over the weekend.
The dam, which ruptured on Jan. 25 close to the Brazilian town of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais state, released a muddy sludge of watery mine waste that engulfed buildings, vehicles and roads. At least 65 people are confirmed dead, and the official toll will rise as the missing are declared dead.
The catastrophe has exposed the dangers of Brazil’s aging dam system. A recent government report found nearly 1,800 dams in Brazil at high or moderate risk of failure. The figure is all the more stunning because the report’s authors evaluated just one-fifth of Brazil’s nearly 24,000 registered dams.
Brazil’s unsafe damsDams are an environmentally and economically risky business, as our global research on hydropower and many other studies have shown.
Beyond the loss of human life, the economic damages of a dam breach can soar into the billions. An entire region’s natural and cultural heritage may be decimated by flooding, and the freshwater ecosystems that humans and fish alike rely on compromised.
Yet dozens of countries worldwide, including the United States and Canada, use dams to store water, generate electricity and trap mine waste, or “tailings.” And there’s no easy or cheap way to dismantle or fix aging dams.
The Brumadinho dam collapse is the second dam accident in Brazil involving one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, Vale S.A., in recent years.
In November 2015, two of Vale S.A.‘s tailings dams – that is, dams used to contain the watery runoff of nearby mines – also collapsed in Minas Gerais state, where some mountains are made almost entirely of iron ore.
That disaster killed 19 people and spewed over 10 billion gallons of water and mine sediment downstream, contaminating 441 miles of Brazil’s Rio Doce river before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. It is considered the country’s worst environmental tragedy ever.
ReutersRepairing broken dams in Brazil can cost between US$40,000 and $10 million per dam, according to Brazil’s national water authority. That is a financial hurdle for a country that has been in deep recession since 2015.
But the social, economic and environmental costs of letting old dams fail may be higher.
Reducing the risk of dam failureThe environmental damage is particularly acute when tailings dams collapse, since the large amounts of mining waste they release is highly toxic.
Of the roughly 3,500 tailings dams worldwide, over 300 collapse each year. Two to five of those are “major” failures like Brazil’s.
Prompted by this impending danger, the United Nations Environmental Program recently issued recommendations for enhancing tailings dam safety around the world.
Mining companies should strive for zero-failure, it said, warning that “safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor.”
The report also suggests the creation of a global database of mine sites and tailings storage facilities to better track, and ultimately predict, dam failures.
When old dams have become too costly to maintain or repair, removal is generally considered the best course. Dismantling old dams, as the United States and Europe are increasingly doing, also restores freshwater ecosystems that have been impacted by decades of damming.
Brazil is considering decommissioning at least one dam, in the country’s north, due to biodiversity concerns and because it no longer efficiently produces hydroelectricity.
Since the country has federal guidelines regulating the treatment of old dams, the decision about whether to repair, dismantle or continue operating dams is largely left to state officials. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has promised to further deregulate the mining industry.
That setup, we fear, leaves the country ill-equipped to deal with its impending dam crisis.
Rescue workers at Brazil’s Brumadinho dam collapse in protective gear. The sludge released in the disaster contained iron ore mine waste. Reuters/Washington Alves
Technological improvementsTo increase the safety of its mines, Brazil and other countries could look beyond dams for storing iron ore waste.
New technology has created some promising alternative solutions.
These include approaches that create a paste of thickened mine tailings, which may then be stored either above ground or in impermeable plastic sheathes below the surface. This method both makes it less likely that the contamination seeps into the ground. It also reduces water use. However, it is expensive.
Constructed and engineered wetlands can also act as treatment systems – a kind of faux natural filter.
Wetlands are affordable to build and operate and require relatively little maintenance. Technology can enhance their natural capacity to remove contamination from wastewater.
However, mines must have sufficient available land to support wetlands, and the these systems – like all wetlands – don’t work as efficiently during cold winter months.
Every mine is uniquely situated in terms of its geography, physical setting, environmental context and human population. None of these waste-storage systems alone will make tailings dams obsolete.
But Brazil’s Brumadinho dam collapse is the world’s latest reminder of the risk posed by old and unsafe dams. With national safety guidelines informed by science and stricter enforcement, countries can reduce the chance of a disaster like this happening again.
International Year of the Salmon brings people together for common goal
By Mary Catharine Martin, Communication Director at SalmonState Friday, January 11, 2019 Juneau Empire
2018 was a mixed year for Alaska salmon. Bristol Bay saw its biggest run on record when 62.3 million sockeye returned to the bay. Other Alaska runs, in contrast — the lowest number of sockeye returned to the Chignik River since statehood — were disastrous.
In 2019, however, salmon in Chignik and Bristol Bay will have something in common not only with each other, but with populations across the Northern Hemisphere: the International Year of the Salmon, for which researchers around the world will be collaborating to help solve shared problems.
Atlantic salmon were once just as abundant as Alaskan salmon were during their healthiest periods. Roman soldiers invading Britain wrote home about feeding the army with vast quantities of salmon fighting their way up the Thames River, which flows through modern-day London. On the East Coast of the United States, salmon were once taken for granted as a food source and used to fertilize fields. The plight of salmon in the Lower 48 Pacific Northwest — their historically impressive populations were damaged due to dams blocking fish passage, overharvesting, development and other human-created problems — is another familiar story.
But whether their populations are healthy compared to historic levels or not, Pacific and Atlantic salmon now share many of the same threats and are displaying the same trends, said International Year of the Salmon Director for the North Pacific Region Mark Saunders.
In the 1990s, Saunders said, salmon populations in very different parts of the world began to change “at an almost exponential rate.” Fewer were coming back from the ocean. Those that did were coming back smaller.
A now-retired Canadian scientist, Dr. Dick Beamish, suggested the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, to promote research on how ocean conditions are contributing to those changes.
IYS has now grown into an effort to ensure the “resilience of both salmon and people” in a changing climate. In one of the first research efforts under IYS, more than a dozen scientists from every country participating in NPAFC, or the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (Japan, Korea, Russia, the United States and Canada) will be on board the ship the Professor Kaganovsky from mid-February to mid-March. They’ll do trawl surveys of surface-level fish at “a checkerboard” of around 40 stations in the Gulf of Alaska, Saunders said. Some fish will be funneled into an aquarium-like tank, allowing all five species of salmon to come on board in good condition to be tagged and released. Special satellite tags will help scientists track the migration routes of salmon while they’re feeding in the open ocean.
Scientists will keep some salmon, collecting otoliths (salmon ear bones, which, like tree rings, carry information about a salmon’s life history.) Otoliths can be used to determine the age of a salmon and where it has been in the ocean during different stages of its life. Scientists will use the latest genomics technology to figure out salmon’s natal streams as well as to test for a variety of 46 pathogens. They’ll also be noting the salmon’s overall physical health and measuring ocean conditions by taking plankton surveys and testing temperature at depth.
The overall hope is to figure out what’s going on in the high seas in the winter — a critical time in a salmon’s life.
By 2021, they hope to expand the surveys beyond the gulf to include the entire North Pacific, Saunders said.
“The salmon can teach the climatologists and ecologists a lot. What the salmon are telling us can really help us understand what is changing out there in the open ocean,” he said.
The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, or NASCO, which includes Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, the Kingdom of Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Greenland, and the European Union, is an equally central part of IYS.
“If we’re not collaborating, we’re missing an opportunity to find the answers much more efficiently,” Saunders said. One of the main goals is to encourage scientists, governments and organizations to share data.
“We can’t solve it all in four or five years, but our institutions and people can be connected,” he said. “The clues lie in comparisons across hundreds, if not thousands, of populations that are experiencing these changes differently. A lot of 2019 is about bringing people together to work on setting the conditions for resilience for both salmon and people. I liken it to an intelligence network.”
A central part of that intelligence network is indigenous knowledge in Russia, Alaska, and Canada. So is looking at how climate change and its effect on salmon will impact people.
“Sometime in the next ten years, Atlantic and Pacific salmon are going to meet in the mid-polar region,” he said. “What does that mean to people? What does it mean, culturally, as these distributions change?”
Saunders suggests those interested in getting involved with IYS go to the website, www.yearofthesalmon.org. Another thing people can do is alert IYS about local salmon-related events, knowledge and studies.
“There’s something in it at every level if you’re interested in sustaining salmon,” Saunders said.
• Mary Catharine Martin is the communications director of SalmonState, a nonprofit initiative that works to ensure Alaska remains a place wild salmon thrive.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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