Did you see Finding Dory yet?
Each year, mining companies operating throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific dump millions of tons of mine waste into oceans and rivers. Known by the industry as “tailings,” this muddy sludge is created during processing, when the desired mineral, such as gold, is chemically separated from the extracted ore.
Usually, tailings are stored in facilities on land, in the form of a dammed pond or, less frequently but more responsibly, dewatered and stored in dry stacks. But in a few cases, companies skip even the most basic of waste management processes, and dump this toxic waste into water bodies.
This is the first post in a series that highlight this worst of the worst practice — — and the mining companies who continue to do it. For more information about the problem on a global scale, check out our infographic.
This week, we’ll take a look at the Batu Hijau mine, located in Indonesia on the island of Sumbawa. Batu Hijau recently made news when Denver-based Newmont Mining sold its share of 48.5 percent of the mine to an Indonesian company (The rest of the mine is owned by the Indonesian government). The company has a long history with this mine, starting mining of gold, silver and copper in the area in 1999.
The mine dumps 40 million tons of mine waste into the Senunu Bay of the Indian ocean each year. Indonesian environmental group WALHI conducted tests that found reduced fish populations and water pollution between 2006 and 2010. They found the waste contains heavy metals and chemical elements, such as arsenic and lead. Locals reported fewer fish to catch and the disappearance of some species.
In 2006, the Indonesian environmental group WALHI, sued Newmont, alleging it was dumping pollution that included mercury into the Senunu Bay. Courts brought criminal charges against the company but eventually acquitted Newmont of all charges.
Still, over the years many people have protested the mine and asked for compensation for the pollution, and local governments have sought to put stricter limits on dumping, arguing the mine waste has disturbed communities’ fishing ground and that Newmont was licensed to dump waste into the Senunu Bay without proper community consultation.
Local activists are still trying to mitigate the harms caused by the continued practice of tailings dumping. WALHI is trying to lobby the Indonesian government to enact “no go zones” for mining, with the hope that such protected areas would also prohibit the dumping of mine waste.
In upcoming posts, we’ll take a look at this problem in other parts Indonesia and in other countries, including Papua New Guinea and Norway.