Mining and society are intricately connected. We are so dependent upon mining that it is far more realistic to question how, when, and where we will mine than to question if we will mine.
But this brings forth some serious challenges. The resources we depend upon are finite, and we are consuming an ever-increasing amount of them. At the current rate of growth in consumption, it will not be long before we will need more resources than our planet can provide. What will we do then?
More significantly, what can and will we do to prevent this scenario from unfolding?
‘Rethink’ is an exploration into how society can become sustainable and what roles all of us play in achieving this goal. It is a call to action to begin the change now, with the recognition of the factors that can drive or inhibit such change. Most importantly, it is a dialogue on how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
On August 4, 2014, a tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine, in the Cariboo region of British Columbia failed, releasing 24.4 million cubic metres of water and mine waste into the environment. The resulting inquiry into this disaster identified the cause of failure as a design failure. One of the recommendations of the inquiry to prevent such disasters from happening again is the use of best available technology and best available practices, including ‘dry stack’ technology.
On November 5, 2015, one of the tailing dams at the Samarco mine in Bento Rodrigies, Brazil suffered a catastrophic failure, releasing 50 million cubic metres of water and mine waste. Seventeen days later, the brown mudflows reached the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 650 km from the mine. The immediate questions to this disaster mirror those of the Mount Polley disaster with respect to the impacts and who bears responsibility.
It is important to have these conversations. Why did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? Was there negligence? Was information on the incident released in a timely manner?
When we look at pictures of the impact of these disasters it is easy to point the finger at the mining companies involved, after all, it is their mines, and it is their responsibility to operate according to the laws where they operate. Who else should be held accountable?
As far as the dam failures themselves go, of course, it is those that build and maintain them that hold responsibility, but past that point things get a little turbid.
If we think about why these massive mines exist in the first place, we can begin to take in the full breadth of responsibility for these disasters.
These mines exist because societies are demanding more – more end products of mined resources. With the richest deposits mined out, mining companies moved onto lower and lower grade deposits. This is a story of demand to produce more while the sources provide less.
Meanwhile, we have measured our economic health through growth for both companies and countries. Yet underpinning this quest for perpetual growth is the reality that this planet is of a finite mass. It is no surprise that something has to give.
So when we look at these disasters and think of the impacts and the people directly affected and ask ‘How could this happen?’, are we not more or less failing to see it is really about when, not how?
These disasters, while most of us are not directly responsible for them, are all connected to them, and not in the ‘we are all a part of this world, we are all a part of humanity’ way. We are connected to it through our demands for raw materials, which are the ingredients in every aspect of our developed lives from infrastructure to consumer goods.
It is in this, our culture of consumption, where we have disconnected ourselves from the true costs of our lifestyles that we stare in disbelief at the massive destructive impact of events such as tailings dam failures without ever reflecting on their visible paths of destruction being a visible mark of the true cost of our unsustainable methods of consumption.
Perhaps in the upcoming months, inquiries into the Samarco failure will produce recommendations similar to those from Mount Polley. No doubt there will be a call for safer waste disposal methods. Perhaps new laws will drive the development of new technologies to better handle mine tailings and perhaps that technology will eventually even prove to be more cost effective than tailings dams. If that happens, as it has in the past, perhaps we will talk of how we learned from disaster, innovated, and evolved, but will we have?
The views expressed by the author(s) of Rethink are not necessarily reflective of the organization and are provided as ideas for consideration in context of a changing world view.