The bronze age introduced the world to exponentially changing life styles. Harnessing the earth’s metals to construct tools, housing materials, and weapons had far reaching effects and unintended consequences, one of which is that we are now thoroughly dependent upon substances that hide beneath the ground we walk on.
- Molybdenum (moly)
These are a few of the materials which mark every aspect of our lives. All of these materials must be mined and extracted from the earth. The unintended consequences of mining are many.
Miners face cave-ins, explosions, gas and chemical leaks, and fatal diseases such as black lung, asbestosis, silicosis, and radiation. In some parts of the world human labor exploitation is rampant.
Our planet suffers from damage to underground geological structures and surface environmental degradations. Even the best and most modern mining operations present unintended consequences. Some risks, like air pollution and chemicals leaching into ground water, are invisible. Occasionally (or all too frequently?) the risks are frighteningly visible. The Mount Polley Mine tailings spill (MPMTS) of August 4, 2014 in Canada is a stark reminder of why we must remain vigilant about optimal design and constant monitoring of mining operations.
MPMTS released about 2.6 billion gallons of water, along with 1.3 billion gallons of slurry into nearby Polley Lake, which subsequently inundated Hazeltine Creek and then Quesnel Lake, which was prime habitat for rainbow trout and sockeye salmon. To visualize the enormity of the disaster, imagine 6,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of toxic, semi-liquid gunk coming at you.
What are mine tailings? The elements that we pull from the belly of the planet do not come to us in their pure form. They are stitched into the geology of the earth. The raw material miners yank from the ground must be broken down and the precious elements—gold, silver, moly, uranium, etc—extracted by crushing, grinding and rinsing the raw material with any number of chemical additives. Mine tailings are the dust and waste rock—liberally contaminated with toxic chemicals—that remain on site after extraction. They are usually suspended in water, or tailings ponds, to reduce the chance of toxic dust pollution in the air. The larger the mining operation, the larger the tailings pond and dam must be.
What causes a tailings breach? Just as dams used for power production and recreation sometimes fail, so too, can tailings dams fail due to overfilling or structural failure. Many tailings dams are made of sand, not a particularly stable ingredient to begin with.
Are there alternatives to tailings ponds? Yes. However, safer solutions, like drying the tailings or converting them to a paste, is expensive and time-consuming. Mining companies exist for the bottom line and naturally resist spending money unless forced to. Likewise research into better methods of containment requires money. Who will pay for the research?
What is the solution to tailings disasters? Like all complex problems, the solutions are complicated. Mining is a necessary evil with unintended consequences which make it an activity that warrants strict regulation and careful scientific research. It is imperative that each of us pay attention to what is going on in our own community. When a mining operation seeks a permit to open a new operation or alter an established one, we must ensure that the company follows all regulations and carries adequate insurance against the possibility of disaster down the road.
The YouTube videos below, courtesy of Global IBCTV, illustrate the risks.