Extracting minerals is necessary for a range of technologies that enrich our lives. But, under capitalism, where profits are prioritised over people's needs, whole ecologies are being destroyed while corporations get away with mining in the most expedient and destructive way.
An ecosocialist approach to mining would take mineral resources out of the hands of corporations and placing them under public ownership and democratic control.
It would value the experience of First Nations people and give them the right to reject mining proposals on their lands. It would also extend this right to local communities that are directly affected.
It would minimise the need for mining and implement strong environmental controls, including prohibiting certain mining techniques and placing a ban on mining that risks damaging cultural heritage, ecological habitat or drinking water.
An ecosocialist approach would also invest in better recycling and reusing of existing minerals stock (especially steel and gold). It would invest in developing new technologies to eliminate the use of nasty chemicals, such as lithium, and develop solar thermal technology that can provide dispatchable solar power without batteries.
It would also abolish bans on unions taking action to stop mining projects and secure transitional arrangements for workers in the fossil fuel sector.
Today, the rising climate movements have forced a society-wide discussion on the dangers of mining. It is not realistic to eliminate mining altogether. However, we can reduce the need for certain types of mining and make sure that, where it has to happen, it is done as safely and cleanly as possible.
Impact on water
Different types of mining use different amounts of water for processing and washing mined material.
The recently-approved Adani Carmichael coal mine in Central Queensland, which is projected to use about 12 billion litres of water a year, has been given free unlimited water extraction rights for 60 years by the state Labor government. The Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine in South Australia uses about 10 billion litres of water a year.
Mines that cut through underground streams and aquifers can cause the depressurisation and drying out of water tables. This can lead to less fresh water and farmland degradation.
Longwall underground coal mining, which allows for a “controlled collapse” of rock strata can lead to subsidence. This can impacts both underground aquifers and bodies of water at surface level, which either vanish into the earth or become contaminated with toxic materials from the cracked rock layers below.
The New South Wales government has approved longwall coal mining under Sydney’s drinking water catchments. One of these, the Dendrobium mine, has already cracked a river bed and caused 90% of the river to dry out — representing a loss of about 1.28 billion litres a year of surface water flows into the catchment.
Even WaterNSW has objected to South32’s push to expand the mine, warning it will cause cracks under the Cordeaux and Avon dams and result in the loss of some 3.3 billion litres of water a year. Sydney’s dams are already below 50% capacity — the first time in more than a decade.
Blasted and dug up waste rock often contain salts, which find their way into watercourses and rivers. This is very dangerous, especially during a drought. Waste rock from metal mines, which is often crushed up, can lead to acid mine-runoff, causing entire rivers downstream to become denuded of fish and other aquatic life.
Depending on local environmental regulations — or lack thereof — mines can discharge huge amounts of toxic mud and slurry into nearby rivers or oceans. This blanket of mud has a catastrophic effect on the ecology of the river or ocean floor.
Indonesia-based Action for Ecology and People’s Emancipation estimates that about 20% of the tailings waste from US-based Freeport McMoRan’s Grasberg copper and gold mine in West Papua — one of the world’s largest open-cut mines — makes its way into the Arafura Sea each year. The company has dumped vast amounts of tailings into the Aikwa River, causing the contamination of surrounding river systems, land surfaces and groundwater.
The mining of uranium, lithium, silver, gold, copper and rare earth minerals requires ore to be crushed into a fine powder and treated with toxic chemicals to produce a concentrated “liquor” that then allows the precious metal to be extracted.
The resultant slurry can be toxic due to the chemicals used to process the rock (for example, cyanide is used to dissolve gold out of rock) or the composition of the rock itself. This can lead to water, mud or airborne dust containing toxic heavy metals or radioactive substances.
In poor countries, where there are generally no environmental regulations, generations are being poisoned. According to theworldcounts.com, almost all the children in the Peruvian town of La Oroya have dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic and other toxins in their blood. More than 40% of children under 5 suffer “mental deficiencies” due to the effects of nearby lead, zinc and copper mines.
In situ leach (ISL) extraction, used in uranium and copper mining, involves injecting large amounts of hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid into the ground to dissolve rock. In 2016, 48% of uranium mining around the world used this technique, including three Australian uranium mines — Beverly, Four Mile and Honeymoon.
Spills are not uncommon at ISL sites and, depending on the hydrogeology of the ground, the toxic soup of acid and dissolved materials can migrate from the site decades after mining has ceased, risking drinking water reservoirs and farmland.
The blasting, crushing and digging of mining generates tremendous amounts of dust. Often, this dust contains silica as well as trace amounts of lead, arsenic, cobalt, mercury and cadmium. It damages workers and anyone living nearby the mine or rail corridors used to haul the material.
Imperfections in nitrate explosives used for blasting open-cut mines can lead to toxic orange plumes of nitrous oxide gas, which are also hazardous for workers and those living nearby. Blasting, heavy machinery and hauling the mined products also generates substantial noise.
Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is released during coal mining, adding to its greenhouse impact. It can also erupt causing sections of a coal face to collapse. This is how two workers were killed at the Austar coal mine in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, in 2014.
Mining corporations cut corners to save money and the disasters involving tailings dam collapses are testament to this.
Excessive rain or flooding can compromise the dams, and things get worse when more tailings are put into dams than they were designed to hold. Two recent tailings dam collapses in Brazil, at iron ore mines operated by Vale (one of which was jointly-owned with BHP Billiton), released a tsunami of toxic mud that killed people and destroyed homes, villages and entire river ecosystems.
Corporate failure on such a scale is not unusual in countries where local authorities mostly side with mining corporations over the rights of local communities.
It also shows up in the fact that some 15,000 miners are killed doing their jobs every year across the world. Mining is dangerous work. Depending on the strength of workers’ movements in any particular country, safety issues are either well addressed, flagrantly ignored or somewhere in between.
In Australia, where unions have won rigorous safety standards, it remains a challenge to ensure they are not eroded.
Climate campaigners and unions covering mine workers need to work together to ensure that no one is left behind in the necessary transition to reduce the deleterious impact of mining on our ecology.
[Zane Alcorn is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]