Saturday, November 17, 2007

Modern Mining Myths

Modern Mining Myths

Modern metal mining is producing a legacy of dead rivers, ruined landscapes, and groundwater dangerously polluted by heavy metals and chemicals. Ecological damage of this magnitude isn't just happening in countries with lax environmental regulations. It's also happening in the United States, despite environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act.

Part of the problem is that modern mining with its open pits, massive waste rock dumps and toxic processing chemicals has outstripped environmental and mining regulations. They simply weren't written to deal with massive open pits over a mile wide, mountains of waste rock and water pollution that can last 1000 years. And where regulations prohibited some actions, such as dumping tailings in stream drainages, industry has successfully gained exemptions to the law.

Another part of the problem is perception. Greenwashing by the mining industry portrays mines as strictly regulated facilities that temporarily use the land with minimal lasting effects. Public relations campaigns by industry trade groups, such as the Gold Institute, imply that with modern technology, mining nowadays poses little risk to the environment or public health. This article looks at two major mining components - cyanide leaching and "zero discharge" tailings impoundments - in an effort to explode these myths.

Cyanide - Mining's Poison Pill

Used to process both base and precious metals, cyanide is the reagent of choice at modern mines. 85% of the world's gold is produced through the cyanide leach process. Although acknowledging cyanide's acute toxicity (1 teaspoon of 2% cyanide solution will kill an adult) the mining industry maintains that accidental releases of cyanide are rare, but that when they do occur, impacts "are transient and the recovery of the environment occurs in a short period."

However, that claim is not born out on the ground; lots of mines leak lots of cyanide into ground and surface waters. In Idaho, the Grouse Creek mine had numerous violations discharging cyanide at levels two to five times higher than allowed. Even after mining ceased in 1997, cyanide continued to leak into nearby Jordan Creek at levels harmful to aquatic life. At the Beal Mountain, Kendall, Golden Sunlight and Zortman-Landusky mines - all in Montana - numerous cyanide spills and leaks contaminated drinking water aquifers and killed streams. These weren't transient effects. Because of persistent cyanide contamination, Pegasus Gold had to provide an alternative drinking water source to the town of Zortman, and Placer Dome bought out landowners downstream of the Golden Sunlight mine . In fact, Montana has so many streams and aquifers contaminated with cyanide from mining operations that, in 1999, a citizen's initiative to ban new cyanide leach operations passed by a healthy margin. Clearly Montana taxpayers, after watching their streams die and faced with a clean-up bill of close to $60 million, didn't buy industry's argument that cyanide doesn't cause long-term problems.

"Zero Discharge" - Fact or Fiction?

Most mines process millions of tons of ore a year. The consistency of wet cement, tailings are what's left over after the ore has been processed. Current practice for permanent tailings storage is to construct a dam across the mouth of stream, divert the stream, and dump the tailings in the drainage. At Ft. Knox, outside of Fairbanks, for example, over 1,000 acres of the upper Fish Creek drainage will be consumed by tailings.

See the full article at: Northern Alaska Environmental Center.