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 Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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