July 1 marks Canada Day when many Canadians celebrate the unification of three colonies into their country on the same date in 1867. In Ontario, droves of people head off to their summer cottages and vacation get-a-ways on the shores of the Great Lakes for the holiday weekend. Lake Huron’s sandy beaches and beautiful aquamarine waters attract many visitors from all over the world. But this year, many First Nations were not celebrating the stripping of their sovereignty rights and desecration of their lands.
Those heading to the Saugeen Shores area and the town of Southampton this past weekend were greeted Saturday by the second annual “Walk the Talk” peaceful protest march against not one, but two permanent underground nuclear dumps less than a mile away from Lake Huron.
More than 500 citizens from across North America gathered at the Southampton, Ontario, flagpole on High Street by the lake. They gathered to voice their opposition to nuke dumps on these beautiful shores and to the continued production of this dangerous and deadly waste. They walked several kilometers through the town and along the beach to heighten awareness and bring attention to this diabolical plan, orchestrated largely in secret by local and national authorities and a deceitful industry, to bury low level, intermediate and high level nuclear waste underground and less than a mile away from this important fresh water source. They gathered to push back against a corrupt political leadership from the local level to the upper levels of dirty energy frontman Stephen Harper’s disastrous national government. They marched to say no to an industry that has been lying and deceiving the public about the dangers of nuclear energy and radiation exposure for decades. They walked to promote real renewable wind and solar energy alternatives.
Surely the question that comes to many is why on Earth would anyone in their right mind consider the shores of Lake Huron for the first permanent nuclear dump in North America? Lake Huron sits to the north of Lakes St. Clair, Erie and Ontario and the water of this lake flows southward and eastward, eventually connecting to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Great Lakes account for 21 percent of the world’s fresh water resources, or a little over one fifth, and to many native American cultures and First Nation peoples, the Great Lakes are considered the sacred heart of Turtle Island. So, why would anyone consider dumping radioactive poisons that will remain deathly dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years next to such an integral part of the our Great Lakes ecosystem? The answer begins with the human folly of siting what is now the world’s largest nuclear energy producer in this very same location.
The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station operated by Ontario Power Generation.
The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, with its eight currently operating reactors, is now the largest operating nuclear power plant in the world and fifth largest operating power producer of any kind. When all reactors are operating, it produces 7,276 megawatts a year. It sits directly on the shores of the lake on a sprawling 2300 acre complex that is also home to the Western Waste Management Facility (WWMF), an above ground interim waste storage area for the low level and intermediate level radioactive waste for all 20 of the nuclear reactors operated by Ontario Power Generation.
WWMF stores tons of radioactive wastes in 11 different buildings and has the capacity to burn thousands of pounds of this waste every day. That’s right, much of this low level and intermediate-level waste is actually being incinerated sending deadly cancer-causing radionuclides into the atmosphere while leaving growing piles of radioactive ash in their wake, and this has been going on for decades. Greenpeace has noted that incineration of low and intermediate-level radioactive waste does not destroy metals or reduce radioactivity of wastes. In theory, all but a small fraction of radioactive and metallic emissions from incinerators can be captured with well-maintained, high efficiency filters. However, the small particles that escape are more readily absorbed by living organisms than the larger ones filtered.
The Canadian nuclear industry, like its counterparts in nuclearized countries around the world, was born promoting the myth that nuclear energy is safe, green and too cheap to meter. A visit to Bruce Power Visitor’s Center is an immersion into the contradictions we are faced with regarding our energy choices and their repercussions. To arrive to the center, you must pass fields of wind generators in every direction. One hundred fifteen wind turbines make the surrounding wind project one of the largest in Ontario, but the turbines are owned by Enbridge—the same Enbridge that pumps tar sands from the scorched earth of Alberta through a web of spill prone pipelines to be refined in Sarnia, Detroit, Toledo and other points south. Solar trackers also dot the landscape as farmers invest more and more into the harvesting of renewables.
The center itself is a series of stations and displays extolling the fairy tale of a happy marriage between nukes and the natural world. There are several large murals, one depicts wildlife, first nations, early settlers and the nuclear reactors all harmoniously existing side by side. Another mural shows people boating and fishing in the shadow of the power plant with the words “Radiation is all around us,” sprawled across the top and manipulative phrases meant to lull people into considering the cancerous reality of radiation exposure as harmless. The Canadian nuclear industry promotes its Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors as a safe, accident proof method of boiling water that is as innocuous as a mother producing milk, with no harmful side effects. The visitor center at Bruce Power employs the best propaganda the industry can muster in several interactive stations promoting nuclear as the safest and most reliable form of energy while devaluing the role renewables could play in a much safer energy economy.
The realities of the dangers posed by the CANDU reactors and the inordinate amount of high-level radioactive fuel they produce are outlined in this May 1 interview with Arnie Gunderson of Fairwinds Energy Education and Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility titled “Nuclear Contamination Knows No Borders.” CANDU reactors are constantly releasing the known cancer-causing radionuclide tritium into the environment and the levels of tritium in both Lake Ontario and Lake Huron are on a steady increase. Despite a litany of problems with the CANDU design, the industry has done a good job convincing Canadians that they should have no fear of this "fail-safe" reactor design.
With what is now the world’s largest nuclear power plant steaming away on the shores of Lake Huron and a pile of deadly and poisonous radioactive waste that is decades high and growing, Ontario Power Generation is now pushing to transform Lake Huron into a nuclear sacrifice zone. Their plan is to dig out two, what they call Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs), less than a mile away from the Lake and 680 meters below the surface to bury low level, intermediate-level and high-level radioactive waste permanently in shafts carved out of limestone. This is an experiment that has never been done anywhere else in the world and yet just as the nuclear industry tells us that radiation is harmless, we are to believe that this waste will remain safely out of harms way under the Lake for hundreds of thousands of years to come.
Recently, it has come to light that government officials from local mayors all the way up to the current president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Michael Binder, held secret meetings with an association of nuclear power companies called the Nuclear Waste Management Organization charged with locating a dump site. The meetings were held under the guise of the Deep Geological Repository Community Consultation Advisory Group, which consists of a quorum of eight mayors of communities in Bruce County, from 2005 to the fall of 2012. Many of these meetings took place before the public was even made aware of the possibility of siting a high-level waste dump in Bruce County and while the process for siting the low and intermediate level waste dump was still ongoing.
According to documents uncovered by the local group, Save Our Saugeen Shores, Binder, who is a political appointment of the Harper government and chairs what is supposed to be Canada’s neutral nuclear watchdog, warned participants at a meeting on September 30, 2009, of environmental and anti-nuclear groups who “have the project on their agenda. You haven’t seen anything yet.” It seems that Binder had already made up his mind about the validity of the low and intermediate level waste dump as well, stating he hoped "their next meeting with him would be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the low and intermediate-level waste DGR.”
“Secret meetings between industry, government officials and the nuclear oversight commission are a definite slap in the face to democratic transparency, if not downright illegal,” said Jutta Splettstoesser, a resident and farmer from Kincardine.
“The timing of this discussion is troublesome,” says Cheryl Grace, a spokesperson for Save Our Saugeen Shores, the group which accessed the information. “What’s troubling is the secrecy exhibited by the mayors who were elected to serve the public, not the nuclear industry. We can find no evidence that the mayors, meeting as a county council, felt the need to discuss these issues in a public forum. In our own experience with Saugeen Shores council, the council regularly goes around the table and each councillor reports on their activities between council meetings. Mayor Mike Smith, who attended these meetings with the nuclear industry, never saw fit to inform his council and the public about these discussions and meetings. Either that or he did so in a separate secret forum, making all of this even more troubling for our community.”
Fortunately, ground has not yet been broken on either of these ill conceived nuclear waste dumps and resistance is growing as word gets out despite Ontario Power Generation and the Canadian Nuclear industry’s best efforts to keep a lid on the project. Locally, citizens groups plan on challenging the legality of the secret meetings and the collusion demonstrated between the mayors of Bruce County and the nuclear industry prior to public knowledge of the dump siting process.
Any serious political opposition party with a little clout can use the obvious industry bias exhibited by the chair of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to further expose the Harper government’s marriage to dirty energy. Harper already faces sinking popularity and credibility, protecting the nuclear industry’s profit motives in this case has international ramifications for the health and sustainability of the entire Great Lakes region. Even in the U.S., with all its problems of transparency and nuclear malfeasance, an uncovering of such industry bias by an NRC commissioner as was exhibited by Michael Binder would end in his forced resignation or removal, coupled with criminal prosecution.
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is an organization of mayors and other elected officials from more than 100 Great Lakes cities and representing over 16 million people, came out in opposition to the DGR 1 for low-level and intermediate level waste in May. Seventy seven percent of these mayors voted to oppose the dump at this time, stating that, “When dealing with a resource as valuable as the freshwater here, why take the risk of putting the site so close to the shore. Whatever the geology might be in the location, it just seems to make much more sense to have the site as far away as possible from such a major source of fresh water” and concluding “the limited time to review the record and prepare comments, the limited outreach to the broader Great Lakes and St. Lawrence community, and the consideration of only one site that is one kilometer from Lake Huron leads us to conclude that the project should not move forward at this time.”
The Michigan State Senate also recently passed a resolution opposing the low and intermediate level nuclear dump and calling for the U.S. congress to intervene to ensure that international agreements are upheld. The resolution also declared that elected officials in Michigan are more engaged in the process to site a dump and that Michigan standards must be adhered to, declaring no dump site of this nature is to be located within ten miles of “Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Saint Mary’s River, the Detroit River, the St. Clair River or Lake St. Clair.” Michigan standards also exclude “sites located within a 500-year floodplain, located over a sole source aquifer, or located where the hydrogeology beneath the site discharges groundwater to the land surface within 3,000 feet of the boundaries of the site. We encourage Canada to consider similar siting criteria.” The Macomb County commissioners also passed a resolution opposing the siting of the DGR 1 or any other dump so close to the shores of any Lake in the Great Lakes Basin.
Groups are organizing at the grassroots level and they need your support. The Ontario Power Generation and the Canadian government would like us to think that the DGR 1 for low and intermediate-level waste is a done deal, but it’s not! The time is now to raise your voice on this important issue.
"The only answer to the problem of nuclear waste is to stop producing it, however the nuclear industry is gunning for a deep geological repository as a solution to nuclear waste storage so they can promote nuclear expansion. Activists and residents are working with Indigenous Nations and environmental groups across borders and oceans to call on our governments to stop producing it now," said Zach Ruiter of GE-Hitachi's Uranium Secret in Toronto. No safe, permanent solution has yet been found anywhere in the world for the nuclear waste problem.
A petition by the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump citizens group is circulating via the internet that can be signed to stop the low and intermediate level dump. The following groups provide more information on how to actively participate in stopping these nuke dumps on the shores of Lake Huron: Save Our Saugeen Shores, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Northwatch and Ontario's Green Future.
Visit EcoWatch’s NUCLEAR page for more related news on this topic.
HOW SHOULD THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY AGENCIES DEAL WITH NUCLEAR WASTE WORLDWIDE?
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
- Scientists Identify Tipping Points for Antarctica Glacier - EcoWatch ›
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- Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier' Is Starting to Crack - EcoWatch ›
By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.