Out of sight, out of mine: ocean dumping of mine wastes; The world's oceans, already imperiled, face a new threat.

AuthorMoran, Robert

Beginning in 1996 and continuing through at least mid-2004, the Newmont Minahasa Raya gold mine dumped 2,000 tons per day of wastes into the tropical, coral-rich waters of Buyat Bay, off the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia--waters that previously had been the main source of food and income for local families. Soon stories began circulating that the fish were disappearing and that those remaining had deformities. Villagers also complained of strange skin rashes, tumors, and other forms of disease, all of which they claimed started after the waste disposal began. An independent team of scientists was commissioned by the Indonesian government to review the information and concluded that contamination by the mine had occurred. Newmont Mining Corporation, the U.S.-based parent company, commissioned its own studies and continually claimed that the data showed no water contamination--although they neglected to mention that these very studies clearly revealed the polluting of bay sediments by mercury, arsenic, antimony, and other metals and the likely uptake of these pollutants by bottom-dwelling organisms.

Buyat stories appeared everywhere in the media throughout the Pacific and quickly were investigated by the New York Times. Soon the Indonesian government arrested the head of Newmont Minahasa Raya and five other employees. A series of lawsuits followed. In 2007, an Indonesian court found both Newmont and its local director not guilty of the alleged crimes, but the state prosecutor subsequently appealed the ruling to the Indonesian Supreme Court. Some villagers were relocated in response to fears about the alleged contamination, but the claims and counterclaims have left the villagers confused and the issue hanging. Meanwhile, Newmont received permission from the Indonesian government to commence operating a copper-gold mine, Batu Hijau, which dumps up to 160,000 tons per day of wastes off the coast of another Indonesian island, Sumbawa--70 to 80 times the volume of waste disposed into Buyat Bay.

Tailings Trail

This story is a classic example of a common tragedy, usually occurring in the developing world, in which it is largely impossible to render an unbiased verdict because most of the technical data are collected by the interested company or their paid consultants; in which the local environmental oversight and legal systems are incapable of reaching an informed ruling, especially where so much outside money and political influence easily control the processes; and in which all sides therefore mistrust the actions of the officials and the companies.

The tailings (processed wastes) from the Minahasa Raya and Batu Hijau mines were discharged into the oceans via near-shore pipelines at relatively shallow depths: the pipeline from Minahasa Raya into Buyat Bay ran 1.0 kilometer offshore and terminated at 82 meters depth; the Batu Hijau pipeline discharges about 2.9 kilometers offshore at 108 meters depth. Given all the Buyat Bay troubles, this seems exceptionally shallow, especially as many oceanographers say that truly deep waters begin at about 800 to 1,000 meters depth. Newmont argues that the Batu Hijau tailings migrate toward their final resting place in the Java Trench at depths in excess of 4,000 meters, although what little is known about ocean stratification and current flows reveals remarkable complexity and unpredictability.

In fact, nobody knows where all those tailings might be going. And it matters: more than 50 million tons of waste per year are discharged into the ocean from Batu Hijau alone. Several additional operating mines employ submarine tailings disposal (STD), and international corporations are pushing for many more. The desire for developed-world infrastructure and consumer products worldwide is driving a huge (and notwithstanding the recent economic slump, longterm) increase in the demand for metals, especially in cash-strapped countries near Asia that have relatively "flexible" business and environmental practices.

Mine tailings have been dumped into near-shore, shallow marine environments, either directly through pipelines or via rivers, for many decades, possibly for at least the last 100 years. These practices have produced documented impacts to marine life (and alleged impacts to humans) resulting in heated legal disputes in Peru, Chile, Indonesia, and the Philippines among other nations. Modern open-pit metal mines generate much greater volumes of waste than did historical underground mining; approximately 99 percent of all rock moved and processed at modern facilities ends as waste. At most mines, these wastes must be stored and managed forever. Hence, there is a great desire to send the...

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