No such thing as sustainable mining

When Pietro Jarre started working in mining in the early Nineties, the mines he was dealing with were producing 100,000 tons per year. Later in his career, mines he worked with were producing 100,000 tons per day. Pietro, who has a doctorate in geotechnical engineering, and is a specialist in geotechnical and environmental issues on waste rock deposits, mining infrastructure, landfills and brownfields, has had a front seat view of the mining explosion that has happened since the 1970s.

In the year 1970, we extracted from the Earth some 25 billion tons of materials. In the year 2020—just 50 years later—we extracted, blew up, gouged, tore 100 billion tons of material from the Earth. In the year 2050, in order to get to our so-called “Green” transition future, we will need to extract 170 billion tons. The mass of Mount Everest is 175 billion tons. So, in 2050 we will extract a mass the size of Mount Everest and every year after that it will grow and grow until we are extracting two Mount Everests a year. It’s all part of the plan of the Growth Death Cult, a greedy death march by the capitalists who tell us that the only way to save capitalism is to destroy life on Earth.

The vast majority of the mining that we do on this Earth results in toxic waste. Of the 100 billion tons of material dug out in 2020, at least 90% of it was left behind in what are called tailings dumps. To extract the targeted minerals, the rock is ground and mixed with chemicals until its is a fine, muddy, toxic sludge. This waste is dumped in the cheapest possible way and then abandoned. There are thousands upon thousands of these mega-dumps around the world, containing about three trillion tons of toxic waste, according to my calculations.

Pietro tells me about the consequences of just one of these toxic dumps. “One of these mines was Los Frailes, which was close to the Aznalcóllar village near Sevilla in Andalucía, Spain, where from five thousand years ago mining activities took place,” Pietro states. “In that area, on the border between Spain and Portugal, there is a so-called ‘Pyrite Belt’, where copper, iron and many other metals might be mined. The Rio Tinto multinational actually started there. Rio Tinto in Spanish means the red river. And just the name of that company, Rio Tinto, explains that these mines had an impact on the surrounding environment.

“In Aznalcóllar my assignment was, in 1998, to manage the reclamation works due to the failure of the tailing dam which occurred that year. These failures happen much more often than we believe. What happened was that the dam containing the tailings, which are created by the crushing of minerals to extract the metals—this tailing dam broke open and the tailings in the dam flowed down in the river and they continued to flow downhill for forty kilometers into the Doñana Park. The Doñana Park is a sort of bird sanctuary where most birds flying from Europe to Africa, stop. It’s a sort of rest stop for birds. And because of the tailings flowing from the failed tailing dam, the sanctuary has been heavily polluted. The sludge flowing down—five million cubic meters of very acidic sludge—covered as a cake for 10, 20, 30 centimeters the topsoil, covering olive trees, orchards, everything, everything.”

Pietro Jarre: No such thing as sustainable mining

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
Listen to episodes