Mining companies are clearly not protecting the waterways near their mining operations. Mining companies dump more than 180 million tons of hazardous waste each year into rivers, lakes and oceans worldwide, according to a report by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada. The amount of mine waste dumped a year is 1.5 times as much as all the municipal waste dumped in the U.S. landfills in 2009.
Mine processing wastes, called tailings, contain up to three dozen dangerous chemicals including arsenic, lead, mercury and processing chemicals like acids and cyanide. Waste rock, the extra rock that does not contain significant amounts of ore, can also produce acid and toxic contamination.
“The dumping of mine tailings and waste rock pollutes waters around the world, threatening the drinking water, food supply and health of communities as well as aquatic life and ecosystem,” the report declares.
The report looked at 10 of the world’s largest mining companies, and only one BHP Billiton (Australia/UK) has policies that reject dumping in rivers and oceans, but not policies rejecting dumping in lakes. The other companies are:
- Barrick Gold (Canada)
- Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold (USA)
- Goldcorp (Canada)
- Newcrest Mining (Australia)
- Newmont Mining (USA)
- Rio Tinto (UK/Australia)
- Teck (Canada)
- Vale (Brazil)
- Xstrata (Switzerland)
The destruction of Alaska’s Lower Slate Lake
The report cites examples around the world of contaminated waterways. One of the examples is a U.S. lake, the Lower Slate Lake located in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. In June 2010, Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation of Idaho began mining ore from the Kensington Gold Mine. The gold mine is expected to generate an estimated seven million tons of tailings. To hold the tailings, the company drained most of the 22-acre Lower Slate Lake and is currently dumping the tailings into the lake basin, which is “killing all aquatic life,” as the report puts it.
The EPA urged the Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider the permits it issued to the mining company to no avail. Unfortunately, allowing the company to destroy Lower Slate Lake in order to have a dumping ground for its tailings sets a precedent for other companies. The Pebble mine project of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty is considering dumping tailings into Frying Pan Lake, located near Bristol Bay, Alaska.
How companies and the U.S. government can protect water ways
The report recommends that companies take steps to protect the waterways nearby their mining operations. The recommendations include the following:
- Produce less waste through building an underground mine, as opposed to an open-pit mine
- Remove most of the water from tailings and dispose of them in a dump that is lined and covered
- Put waste rock and tailings back into the pits or underground mines
- Not mining in certain places that are too environmentally sensitive
The report also recommends something the U.S. government can do to protect waterways from mining waste: fix the loophole in the Clean Water Act which allows mining companies to dump the toxic waste generated from their mining operations into water ways.
Photo credits: Flickr user, DieselDemon