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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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.