Mine Waste Dams Threaten the Environment, Even When They Don’t Fail
Scars from large mining operations are permanently etched across the landscapes of the world. The environmental damage and human health hazards that these activities create may be both severe and irreversible.
Many mining operations store enormous quantities of waste, known as tailings, onsite. After miners excavate rock, a processing plant crushes it to recover valuable minerals such as gold or copper. The leftover pulverized rock and liquid slurry become tailings, which often are acidic and contain high concentrations of arsenic, mercury and other toxic substances.
Mining companies store tailings forever, frequently behind earth-filled embankment dams. Over the past 100 years, more than 300 mine tailing dams worldwide have failed, mainly due to foundation weakening, seepage, overtopping and earthquake damage.
We are research scientists studying how humans affect rivers. In our view, the damage caused by stored mine waste often outweighs the benefits that mining provides to local economies and the technology industry.
This issue is especially urgent now in a region of the Pacific Northwest where Alaska and British Columbia meet. This zone, known as the Golden Triangle, is studded with mineral claims and leases. We believe that rivers in this area could be severely damaged if proposed mega-projects are allowed to proceed.
Catastrophic Failures Renew Old Worries
Tailings dam failures range from the 1966 Aberfan disaster that buried a Welsh village to multiple spills over the past decade in Canada, China, Chile and the United States. The International Commission on Large Dams, a nongovernmental organization, warned in 2001 that the frequency and severity of tailings dam failures was increasing globally.
Two catastrophic and highly publicized failures at the Mt. Polley dam in Canada in 2014 and the Brumadinho dam in Brazil in 2019 finally catalyzed a response. The International Council on Mining and Metals, the United Nations Environment Programme and the independent organization Principles for Responsible Investment drafted a "global standard for the safe and secure management of mine tailings facilities." The first public review of the standard was completed in December 2019, and its authors plan to finalize their recommendations by the end of March 2020.
The standard aspires to achieve "zero harm to people and the environment and zero tolerance for human fatality." Reducing the likelihood of future dam failures and minimizing damage if one does break are appropriate goals, but our research suggests that the concept of "zero harm" is false and potentially dangerous.
Why? Because once in place, tailings dams and their toxic reservoirs require maintenance forever. Even if there is no catastrophic failure, these dams and their surrounding infrastructure can cause ecological harm in multiple ways. They require artificial water diversions and releases, which upset natural flow patterns in surrounding streams and modify water temperature and concentrations of metals. And polluted groundwater seepage from unlined reservoirs or failing liners is often hard to detect and treat.
These ecosystem modifications directly affect organisms on land and in the water downstream. Every decision to allow a mine to proceed with a tailings storage facility indelibly transforms rivers and their ecosystems for hundreds to thousands of years.
International Rivers at Risk
Today these decisions loom large in the Golden Triangle, home to the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers – three of the longest undammed rivers in North America. Salmon from these rivers have supported indigenous communities for millennia, generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity annually and provide a dependable source of food for organisms ranging from insects to brown bears.
We calculate that 19% of the total drainage area of these three rivers is staked with mineral mining claims or leases. This includes 59% of the Unuk River watershed, along with the entire Iskut River corridor, the largest tributary to the Stikine River.
We have identified dozens of mines in exploratory or production phases. Some industry representatives call these statistics irrelevant because only a small portion of the claims will convert to economically viable projects. But from our perspective, the fact that vast areas of these watersheds are included in initial explorations implies that few rivers in this region are safe from potential mining development.
Most proposed projects in the Golden Triangle will require open pit mining and tailings storage. As one indicator of their potential scale, the Red Chris Mine, which has operated since 2015 in the headwaters of the Stikine River, maintains a tailings reservoir dam that is permitted to ultimately stand 344 feet (105 meters) high and contain approximately 107 billion cubic feet (305 million cubic meters) of tailings. The heights of the failed dams at Mt. Polley and Brumadinho were 131 feet (40 meters) and 282 feet (86 meters), respectively.
Those heights pale in comparison to dams proposed for three metal mines in the Stikine and Unuk watersheds, including KSM, Galore Creek, and Schaft Creek. The tallest of four dams planned for KSM would measure 784 feet (239 meters) – one of the highest dams in North America, and the second highest in Canada.
At KSM, economically viable ore will be transported from open pits to a processing facility and tailings storage reservoir, accessed via twin tunnels built under a glacier. After what the project proponent calls the 53-year "life of mine," Seabridge Gold proposes to treat runoff water from the piled waste rock for at least 200 years.
Each component of these proposed mines is an incredible engineering feat that will cost billions of dollars to construct and more to clean up later. From the perspective of maintaining an ecologically healthy watershed, the life of the mine is just beginning when operations close.
In contrast to more conventional water storage dams, which are licensed and built for a finite operating life, tailings dams must hold back their slurry forever. The likelihood of leaks or dam failure compounds over this multigenerational time period as facilities age and projects no longer generate revenue.
Accurately Assessing Risk
Rivers are the arteries of coastal Alaska and northwestern Canada, draining pristine snow and ice-covered mountains and pumping out cold, clean water to support fish, wildlife and people. Here and elsewhere, we believe that regulators should take a measured and cautious view of current and planned tailings facilities.
Dam failures are increasing in frequency, and often are so large that true cleanup or reclamation is not possible. Before more are built, we see a need for independent science to provide a means of honestly assessing the risk of storing mining waste.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
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Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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