The environmental damage caused by mining often can’t be undone. And companies are trying hard to convince us otherwise.
The global mining industry spends tens of millions of dollars each year trying to convince us that it is “sustainable” and an indispensable part of the global economy, both now and in the future. There’s even an initiative to demonstrate mining’s ability to contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The truth is that mining presents major problems for development; including one that is not well-known outside mining-nerd circles: Pollution of ground and surface water “in perpetuity,” i.e. forever.
This is a globally pervasive and enormously costly problem. And the mining industry’s unwillingness to comprehensively address it undercuts nearly everything the industry says about “sustainability.” For developing countries, this permanent pollution represents an unresolvable financial burden that will drain away precious resources needed to address poverty and development.
A quick geology lesson: the mining of hard rock minerals such as gold, silver and copper often exposes other rocks known as sulfides. This exposure causes the rock to produce sulfuric acid that drains into the surface and ground water near mine sites. The acid generation process continues for thousands of years (i.e. “in perpetuity”). Rivers in Spain are still contaminated today by acid that began generation during Roman mining 2000 years ago. Once this contamination begins, it can’t effectively be stopped, only neutralized through the continual chemical treatment of the water. Water treatment of this type is extremely expensive; costing $67 billion per year in the US alone.
Environmental groups have long argued that mines requiring “perpetual water treatment” should simply not receive permits to operate. The cost to communities, the environment, and to tax payers is simply too high. In some countries, including the US, companies are required by law to put up financial sureties (e.g. bonds) to cover the costs of long-term water treatment. But the regulations are weak and clean-up cost estimates are often far below the actual costs. Not to mention, tracing legal responsibilities for rehabilitation over decades or even centuries can be extremely difficult if not impossible. In many countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia oversight of mining is weaker still.
Incredibly, some mining companies argue that they simply can’t operate mines without perpetual water treatment. They contend that banning it means banning mining. This issue is now one of the most contentious in efforts to finalize a global standard for “responsible” mining under the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which Oxfam helped get off the ground ten years ago. Experts with the Center for Science in Public Participation, a Montana-based group that works with mining-affected communities, argue that mining companies can, using existing technology, know with a reasonable degree of certainty whether their mines will be acid-generating. If they are, the companies could look for a different ore body to mine.
For communities around the world, especially rural agricultural communities in developing countries, water is the essential resource that makes their lives and livelihoods possible. Women in particular suffer from the effects of contaminated water. No amount of fancy industry PR or high-sounding principles can make mining “sustainable” if mines are generating pollution that will permanently destroy communities’ access to this life-sustaining necessity. To provide a graphic depiction of the risks communities face, Oxfam is finalizing a mapping of rural agricultural areas in Honduras that are potentially impacted by mining-contaminated water.
Mining companies should commit now to avoiding beginning activities in places that will generate acid and forever destroy water systems. This is especially true in developing countries that lack the capacity and political will to hold companies accountable for long-term clean-up. In the US, efforts have been made to address this issue through reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Law. These should be supported. Financing institutions like the World Bank, which invests in mining projects, should require its clients to demonstrate that their projects will not require perpetual water treatment. And sustainability dialogues like those around the Sustainable Development Goals should make avoiding perpetual water treatment part of their operational plans.
Anything less is just pouring (contaminated) water down the drain.