Mining companies move staggering amounts of earth to extract small quantities of minerals like gold and copper. Much of this waste is contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals used to extract metals from ore. Dealing with the resulting waste is a constant problem — for the industry, environment and nearby communities.
In select places around the world, notably Indonesia, Papua New Guinea — and now, Norway — mining companies handle this problem by simply dumping their waste into rivers, lakes and oceans. In fact, mining companies are dumping more than 180 million tonnes of hazardous mine waste each year into the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans.
This week, thousands of activists, academics and policymakers from around the world are gathering in Hawaii to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress to discuss the state of global natural resource conservation, including the issues of marine mine waste disposal.
IUCN, or the International Union of Conservation in Nature, is a global network of over 1,300 government and civil society organizations. Every four years, the IUCN passes motions during this Congress that, like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, set priorities for the global conservation community.
This year, IUCN members almost unanimously approved a resolution calling for an end to the disposal of mine waste into marine and coastal environments, as well as an end to current sites of marine mine waste disposal.
As noted by the resolution, most national governments do not allow marine tailings dumping, given both the severity of its impacts and available alternatives.
Dumping mine tailings into oceans is destructive to marine life. Tailings are the waste leftover when the desired mineral, such as gold or copper, is separated from its ore. This waste is an often toxic sludge of waste rock and processing chemicals that can contaminate water, smother aquatic plants, and poison fisheries on which coastal communities depend.
Earthworks has documented some of the egregious examples of marine mine waste disposal in a report, Troubled Waters. The toxic mine waste has led to reduced populations of fish and bottom-dwelling organisms in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and local groups in both countries found higher concentrations of toxins such as arsenic or mercury in some surviving fish. In Norway, tailings have been found to be dumped into designated national salmon fjords, which support huge fishing and tourism industries.
But coastal communities around the world are fighting back. Norway, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia have seen communities rally against mines that are polluting the coastal waters on which they depend.
Just this past February, more than 100 local activists conducted a powerful act of peaceful civil disobedience to protect majestic fjords from toxic mine waste. The protesters blocked test drilling from Nordic Mining, which proposes to build a rutile mine that would dump waste into the Førde fjord. Norwegians of all types — from fishers to student activists — have united in opposition to companies proposing to dump tailings into fjords.
Norway was among the only countries to oppose the IUCN’s ban on marine mine waste dumping.
The world’s oceans should not be considered dumping grounds for the mining industry. Mine tailings dumping is an egregious practice that should have been phased out decades ago, but instead, the practice continues – and is being considered in new, fragile marine environments like fjords and intact coral reefs.
The almost unanimously approved IUCN resolution shows wide consensus among civil society, governmental and academic organizations that dumping tailings into oceans and rivers is environmentally destructive and unacceptable. National governments, particularly those of Norway, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, should respond to this signal of public will to by banning the dumping of tailings into oceans. Mining companies should take a stand too — by publicly committing to ban marine dumping for future operations and phasing out the practice at existing operations.
It’s time to bring the mining industry into the 21st century and end marine mine waste disposal.