Waste that lasts 10,000 years in dumps designed to last 50 years

As the race for minerals frantically speeds up, driven by the ‘clean’ and ‘green’ energy revolution, the minerals become harder and harder to retrieve, and the percentage of waste to useful mineral grows and grows. “Over the past 40 years, ore grades—the concentration of the metal or mineral of value—have declined on average by half for many commodities, effectively doubling the volume of mine waste generated for each unit of valuable material produced,” a 2022 report on tailings dams stated. “Current trends suggest an additional 2- to 10-fold increase in the demand for many commodities, particularly those needed for energy transition technologies, by 2060. These trends are not sustainable.”

“The pace to open new mines is just overwhelming,” Steven Emerman, a geophysicist and expert in groundwater and mining tells The Narwhal. “That’s a very dangerous situation where people are in a big rush to do something very risky. My basic recommendation is people need to slow down and stop and think.” But stopping and thinking is so alien to the modern human. Move fast and break things is the mantra and culture of tech. We’ve become marketing and branding stick figures. Impossible is nothing. Just do it. Very intelligent. Very unwise.

Our laptops, desktops, screens, electric vehicles—all our technological marvels—have a voracious and growing hunger for minerals. An early smartphone might have used 4-5 materials. The latest innovations can use 50-60. Upwards of a thousand substances can be involved in the manufacturing process of a ‘smart’ device. For these technological marvels, the Earth and all life are made pay a high, toxic price.

The mining waste piles up in enormous, poorly designed, open pits that must last forever—because this toxic waste lasts forever. A gasping sludge of water, petroleum, sulfuric acid, cyanide, trace minerals, crushed rocks, and all sorts of other mining detritus, are poured and slushed, waiting, waiting in giant toxic lakes. In time, they will seep through fickle, cost-conscious barriers, or else suddenly explode and rip open badly designed dams, smothering, choking and killing, as rivers of poisonous sludge flood forward, often travelling hundreds of kilometers from where they started. In a tailings dam. They started in a tailings dam. Even when a tailings dam has not collapsed, it is still dangerous. When the rain falls, leaching can occur through weak foundations or sulfuric acid can arise. If the tailings dry out, arsenic and lead will be blown in the dust.

A structure that needs to last sixty times longer than a pyramid is cheaply designed so that it will last long enough so that the mining company can reap profits and liquidate. There is no comprehensive global registry of tailings dams. “Tailings dams are built gradually over time, as the mine produces more waste and hydro dams are constructed all at once,” Earth Works explains. “This means that safety oversight can change significantly if the mine changes operators, if the type of ore changes as the mine reaches deeper deposits, or if the mining company comes under economic pressure.” There have been more than 300 recorded tailings dam failures in the last 100 years and the rate of failure has increased significantly in recent years.

In 2022, British Columbia in Canada, had enough toxic liquid mining waste contained in multiple tailings dams to fill one million Olympic-sized swimming pools, with that figure rapidly expected to increase by 75%. If even one of these dams were to fail, the results would be catastrophic for ecosystems. In Canada, they still allow the construction of what are called upstream tailings dams. These cheapskate dams are banned in Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, after devastating collapses. These dams are known for stability issues but they are cheap to build because they are progressively built on top of settled tailings. Cheap costs the Earth. Free destroys the Earth.

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