WC was in Brazil last year, chasing birds in the Pantanal. He noted gold mines at the northeasterly edge of the Pantanal, exactly the kind of low grade ore mines that create staggeringly immense volumes of mine waste, tailings, held behind dams in a part of the world famous for its drenching rainy seasons.
So WC read of the catastrophic failure of two tailings dams in Brazil this past week with a kind of sad resignation. Apparently two dams failed, sending a wall of mud, water and debris careening down a valley, obliterating villages. There are ten known fatalities as WC writes this post, and nearly a hundred are still missing. One young child’s body was found 70 kilometers downstream from where she had last been seen.
There is a third dam that is in danger of failing, forcing an evacuation of still more people.
The mine that produced the tailings and the waste water dam were operated by local iron ore mining company Samarco. Samarco, in turn, is a joint venture of Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton, reportedly the world’s largest mining company, and Vale SA, Brazil’s largest iron ore mining company. All that expertise, all those assurances things were perfectly safe, and the result is a valley stripped of all vegetation for miles downstream, devastated by a manmade tsunami of mine waste.
Lives were lost, people were badly hurt, homes and schools were destroyed and farm land was reduced to a carmel-like bog. Oh, and the rainy season is about to start.
Any one who support large scale industrial mining in Alaska has to acknowledge that all mining dams fail. WC wants to emphasize this:
All. Mine. Dams. Fail.
A tailings dam is a manmade effort that has to operate across geological time. It has to stand for thousands of years. The tailings, the toxic gunk that is the by-product of a large-scale mine, has to be kept secure for a geologic epoch. That’s not going to happen. A mine tailings dam, to protect the people and property downstream, has to stand forever. Can you name any manmade structures that have stood through recorded history, let alone forever? The Egyptian Pyramids? They are in really bad shape, and they are standing the middle of a desert.
Wait, you say, the dams will be maintained. Really? Can you name a company that has existed even 500 years, continually doing repair and maintenance without income, let alone for the tens of thousands of years required for a tailings dam? WC can’t think of one, either. WC can point you to any number of mines whose toxic pollution has outlived the company that built them.
And the truly appalling part of this is that Brazil and the Brazillian state where the mine is located, Minas Gerais – it translates from Portugese as “General Mines” – can ill afford to get too tough with the industry that provide 85% of the state’s revenue. The Samarco mine employs 1,800 people, by an order of magnitude the largest employer in the area. Brazillians have a saying, “It will all end in pizza.” It means that the disaster and its consequences will lead to no meaningful changes.
What are the lessons for Alaska? How can Alaska avoid this kind of catastrophe followed by an inability to prevent another?
By not allowing the first mine to be built. Because when the first mine is built, and a region has become economically dependent on extraction of a nonrenewable resource, it become much more difficult to make it stop.