The 313 million people who live in the United States send about 120 million tons of trash to landfills every year. That’s a lot of trash — just think of all the photos you’ve seen of landfills overflowing with mountains of discarded refuse.
Photo by Flicker user DraconianRain
But that number pales in comparison with the amount of waste that mining corporations dump into oceans, rivers, and lakes around the world each year, which tops 180 million tons. Over 85 percent of this waste comes from just 4 mines: the Grasberg mine in West Papua, the Batu Hijau mine in Indonesia, the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, and the Wabash/Scully mine in Labrador, Canada. These wastes can contain arsenic, lead, mercury, cyanide and over thirty other dangerous chemicals.
Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada spent the past year investigating this egregious, and outdated, practice. Our findings are reported in a new study, Troubled Waters: How Mine Waste Dumping is Poisoning Our Ocean, Rivers and Lakes. The report identifies the world’s waters that are suffering the greatest harm or are at greatest risk from dumping of mine waste. These include rivers in Papua New Guinea on which fishing communities depend, Norwegian fjords where tourists once flocked, once-pristine lakes in Alaska and British Columbia, and coastal waters off islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
Today’s industrial gold and copper mines produce an unimaginable amount of waste. Mining enough gold for just a single wedding band generates, on average, 20 tons of contaminated mine waste. Multiply this figure by the number of wedding rings sold over a single week, and you get some idea of the sheer volume of toxic wastes flowing from these mines into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Ten companies are currently dumping their wastes into these waterways, and 27 more are proposing to do so. This list includes some of the largest, most profitable mining corporations in the world — Canada’s Barrick Gold, US-based Newmont Mining Co. and Freeport McMoRan, and Brazilian-owned Vale.
The United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries have had restrictions on dumping mine tailings into natural bodies of water. But even these national regulations are being eroded by amendments and exemptions. Even though US law has long banned lake dumping, in 2009, the US Supreme Court allowed Coeur D’Alene Mines to dump 7 million tons of tailings from the Kensington Gold Mine in Alaska into Lower Slate Lake, filling the lake and destroying all life in it.
In Canada, Taseko Mines Ltd. is proposing to dispose of 480 million tons of tailings and 240 million tons of waste rock in Little Fish Lake and Fish Creek in British Columbia, burying the ecosystems under a hundred meters of waste. The watershed is home to grizzly bear and highly productive rainbow trout, and is an important cultural area for the Tsilhqot’in People.
For too long, mining operations have used our oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams as dumping grounds for their wastes. In order to protect community and ecosystem health, mining companies must end the practice of dumping into natural water bodies. We simply cannot afford to lay waste to the planet’s most precious resource: water.
Payal Sampat leads Earthworks’ award-winning No Dirty Gold campaign, working with communities affected by mining in a global effort to monitor and reform the mining industry.