Australian news, and some related international items

The long term impacts of mining

Australia’s Mining Legacies, Arena,  by Gavin M. Mudd, 11 July 13 The impacts of mining waste will be felt for years to come. Mining is, by its very nature, a dirty business—it excavates and processes billions and billions of tonnes of rock and dirt every year to extract a wide variety of metals and minerals demanded by modern industrial and technological society. These include metals used in pipes, electronics, buildings and gadgets, such as copper, zinc, iron, nickel and lithium, as well as energy resources for heating and electricity, such as coal, gas and uranium. Australia has, without doubt, a vast resource base in these metals and minerals and we commonly export most of our production to overseas customers who aren’t so luckily endowed. The great scale of modern mining, however, comes at a real cost whether on the local landscape, public health or the global environment, and it is understanding these real costs and how the environmental and social impacts intertwine with economic issues that is the crux of the great mining debate in Australia and globally.

This paper will briefly review the basics of mining, present some important statistics on Australia’s cumulative mining to date, discuss the present state of known mineral resources and link these to the great debates at present: What commodities should (or could) Australia mine? Where should we allow such mining? How are the impacts to be identified? How should such impacts be monitored, regulated and managed? These are the crucial questions of the day, and it is not just environmentalists asking them, but farmers, city dwellers, Indigenous people and ordinary people all over the country. This is placing unprecedented pressure on politicians, the mining industry and increasingly the investment community to recognise that, in the mutated words of Bill Clinton, ‘it’s about the IMPACTS STUPID’………

The mining industry has been very adept at minimising public perception of this aspect of the solid wastes debate for a long time, but the sheer massive scale of modern mining makes it a gigantic source of solid wastes, in Australia as well as globally. Based on extensive research on historical statistics for the Australian mining industry, an estimate of 2012 and cumulative ore, tailings and waste rock is given in Table 2……

Adding up these sectors alone, [coal and iron ore] and allowing for crude estimates of the missing data, suggests that the Australia mining industry has already produced in the order of 100 billion tonnes of solid mine wastes, making the scale of landfills pale into insignificance at just hundreds of millions of tonnes……

Why should we even care about mine waste? Simple—it can leak pollution for centuries or even millennia. This pollution can be in the form of wind-blown dusts or sediment eroded by water scouring waste rock dumps or tailings dams, or it can be more pernicious in the form of seepage from mine wastes into groundwaters or surface waters. A major form of seepage is called acid and metalliferous drainage, or more commonly known as acid mine drainage (‘AMD’). AMD can form when sulfide minerals, mostly pyrite (iron sulfide and its close mineralogical cousins), are exposed to water and oxygen in the surface environment, causing sulfide oxidation and the formation of sulfuric acid, which in turn leaches salts and heavy metals (including sometimes radionuclides).

If AMD leaks into a stream, the metals concentrations are often hundreds or thousands to hundreds of thousands times higher than the levels which can kill most biodiversity, effectively wiping out the ecology of that stream.

There are numerous mines across Australia which are famous—or more to the point infamous—for their AMD impacts on streams: Rum Jungle, Northern Territory;….

the severe pollution from the Rum Jungle uranium mine was one factor, and an important factor, which led many people to actively oppose new uranium projects in the 1970s such as Ranger. After some $25 million worth of engineering works to try and rehabilitate the Rum Jungle site in the mid-1980s, environmental monitoring was conducted for a decade, showing some short-term success in reducing pollution loads to the Finniss River and even some biological recovery. For the past decade I have regularly visited Rum Jungle to observe the ‘success’ of the rehabilitation and all you can see is ongoing and severe AMD pollution of the Finniss River. Reluctantly, the Australian government has recently allocated several million dollars to undertake further assessments before deciding on yet more rehabilitation……

Unfortunately, it was Australian-origin uranium in every reactor at Fukushima at the time of the nuclear meltdowns in March 2011—not something the Australian uranium industry should be proud of, especially given the fact that thirty years of uranium sales to Japan were probably only worth a few billion dollars while the financial costs of cleanup alone to Japanese taxpayers is amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars (excluding social and other economic costs). A related issue is the radioactivity found in almost every rare earth (RE) deposit, due mainly to thorium but sometimes uranium too. When poorly managed, the radioactive wastes from RE mining and processing can cause significant public health and environmental impacts, just ask Malaysians about the former Bukit Merah RE refinery and you’ll understand why they are so concerned about Lynas Corp’s Kuantan RE refinery recently built and opened (after protracted court cases bought by the local community to stop the facility)………

July 11, 2013 - Posted by | General News

1 Comment »

  1. Dear Christina,
    This is a very interesting summary and I’m looking forward to reading it in detail.
    One thing though ‘ Rio Tinto’ actually means ‘Red River’, like any red wine drinker knows that ‘vinho tinto’ means ‘red wine’… Just a funny point…
    Cheers from tropical Cameroon, nick


    Comment by Nick Tsurikov | July 12, 2013 | Reply

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