The Mt Lyell mine in Tasmania, Australia, with its controversial track record of worker fatalities and river pollution, plans to restart operations at the end of June 2014.
The mine's owners, Copper Mines and Tasmania, temporarily suspended operations a few months ago after three fatal accidents. A worked died in a “mud rush” in January of this year, a month after two other workers died falling down a mineshaft. Copper Mines claims they suspended operations to make the infrastructure safer for mine workers, but workers have also suffered as a consequence, with their salaries cut in half for the duration of the suspension.
As the mine re-starts, it's worth looking at the turbulent history of the mine, because it shows the wide-ranging — and long-lasting — impacts of a single mine.
Copper Mines of Tasmania, part of the behemoth Vedanta corporation, has been operating the Mt. Lyell mine since 1995. Long before these recent worker fatalities and the safety issues they revealed, it was run by the now defunct Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company. At that time, the mine operator dumped mine tailings directly into the nearby Queen and King rivers.
Most mining companies nowadays, including Copper Mines, reject this egregious practice. (Though not all — as detailed in our Troubled Waters report, several mining companies continue to dump mine waste into water bodies today). Instead, mine operators more typically build tailings dams or ponds, though these are not foolproof ways to protect the world’s waterways either.
While it's easy to imagine how harmful mine waste dumping into lakes, rivers or oceans can be, it's worth spelling out these impacts. Mine waste contains many dangerous chemicals, including lead, mercury and arsenic. The resulting water contamination kills aquatic life, pollutes drinking water and can destroy livelihoods. Tailings dumping can also destroy wetlands and clog river channels.
Even when a mining company stops using this practice, the damage continues long after. In Troubled Waters, we wrote that the Mt Lyell mine “dumped 97 million tonnes of tailings into the Queen and King Rivers by 1994 but the rivers have yet to be properly cleaned up.” By 2002, the partial cleanup costs for acid drainage and tailings from this mine? were estimated to be nearly US$100 million and the Tasmanian government has essentially given up on cleanup or even partial remediation.
As is often the case, the government is not receiving any help from the current operator to address this long-lasting damage, per an agreement from 1999.
The long-lasting damage that the Mt. Lyell mine has wreaked on the region’s rivers and communities underscores why water-based tailings disposal is an unacceptable practice that must be phased out worldwide.
We hope that the mine will only be reopened when it can guarantee worker safety, and that workers receive compensation for wages lost due to no fault of their own.