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Posted on 14 Mar 2024 in Non-Fiction |

CHRISTOPHER POLLON Pitfall: The race to mine the world’s most vulnerable places. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Renewable energy requires significant quantities of minerals. Can mining companies be trusted to supply them responsibly?

Christopher Pollon is a Canadian journalist who has spent the past two decades ‘writing about natural resources, including the environmental and political conflicts that surround the extraction of metals’. He begins Pitfall with an account of a tailings dam at Mount Polley in Canada’s British Columbia bursting its banks and releasing over 6.5 billion gallons of mining waste ‘into one of the world’s great salmon rivers during the summer sockeye migration. It would become infamous as Canada’s worst environmental mine disaster in history’. But nothing much happened to the mining company:

The close collaboration between the provincial government and the company that owned the mine was glaring to the point of being embarrassing … The executives in charge and their board of directors have yet to pay a cent in fines. After the fact, the government approved a permit to discharge liquid effluent into the same waters that received the spill.

Mining companies seem to have a penchant for capturing governments and regulatory agencies. Pollon asks, if mining companies can get away with this in Canada, ‘one of the richest, most stable democracies on Earth, what are they up to in the poor, more lawless corners of the world?’ The need to answer this question motivated him to write Pitfall.

This book is written for people who have rarely, if ever, stopped to consider where all of the metals we use come from, and at what cost we enjoy the benefits. It pulls back the curtain on an industry that is invisible and everywhere, all at once.

Pitfall makes for depressing reading. Pollon provides an extensive examination of mining ventures in West New Guinea, Guatemala, Inner Mongolia, Bolivia, Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as brief mentions of major mining events in other parts of the world. He also provides information on Australia’s two major mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto. This includes material on BHP’s Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea (a major spillage of mine waste), installation of a desalination plant at the Escondida mine in Chile, and the Brazilian dam disaster; and Rio Tinto’s activities in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, which resulted in political and military turmoil, a collapsed mine in Bolivia, and blowing up a series of 46,000 year old Aboriginal caves in 2020. He sarcastically refers to how his ‘fieldwork had become a sort of masochistic “disaster tourism”‘.

Most mining is conducted above ground. Once a site has been identified, the mining company needs to clear the land to be mined. This may involve removing those who live on that land, and may not be well received by the people concerned, who may resist. This, in turn, may lead to mining companies calling on governments to use force, including bombing raids, murder and mass shootings, to remove the local population. Where those displaced are to be relocated may or may not be considered.

Given the specialised skills mining requires, locals are unlikely to find employment with the mine other than in menial work. Most of the better jobs will go to outsiders, and this, in turn, will result in increases in income inequality and attendant increases in crime and the rise of dark industries such as drugs and prostitution. These are particular problems in developing countries that Pollon refers to as ‘The South’.

Large amounts of water are needed to extract minerals from the earth. Water is combined with chemicals that are crushed and heated to separate different minerals. The water needed for mining may be redirected from other uses such as agriculture or the needs of people living close to mines. This can be a further source of conflict and can lead to repression of the local people. There may also be problems with the water supply in remote locations, such the mountains of Chile.

Could desalination plants solve this problem? Pollon says there are more than 20,000 desalination plants operating across the globe. However, they use a lot of energy and ‘by one estimate the cheapest desalinated seawater is double the average cost of the groundwater’. The cost of the materials involved in building the desalination plant and the power needed to run it have to be weighed against whatever benefit would flow from the minerals obtained by mining with desalinated water. There is also the cost of the pipelines and the energy required to pump the water to wherever it is needed (think of the Chilean mines sited a couple of miles up a mountain, a long way from the coast). Finally, desalinated water produces its own waste and rubbish that would have to be dealt with.

The major problem with mining is pollution and its impact on water supplies and food sources down the track. Mining generates huge amounts of waste, which may be simply dumped into streams, rivers and oceans, with its toxic substances poisoning water and killing fish and plant life. One way to overcome this problem is to construct tailings dams of waste and hope that they will last ‘forever’ – that there will not be spillages due to extreme weather conditions (such as extensive rain) and the walls will not collapse.

It is estimated that there are somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 tailings dams across the globe, with no one (in the West) having an idea of how many there are in Russia or China, both large mining nations. There were 66 major failures of tailings dams worldwide between 1995 and 2020. In January 2019, a tailings dam collapsed at a mine in Brazil, killing 270 miners working below it. Such collapses pollute water supplies and have major impacts on millions of people who rely on water, agriculture and fish supplies downstream.

There is also the problem of ‘forever’. Companies buy and sell mines, and abandon them after their deposits have been exhausted. Who will have responsibility for the cleanup costs of a tailings dam built today that collapses 50 years from now? This highlights a major problem associated with mining: companies reap the benefits and pass the costs of environmental remediation on to others.

Pollon also investigates other sites where minerals might be found. The major one is the sea, where mineral wealth lies on or below the surface of the seabed. He is wary of what the impact may be for food supplies in the longer term.

The common denominator in all ocean mining, especially in the deepest ocean, is that the environmental impacts will be mostly invisible. Out of sight under water, it is even easier to inflict this damage than in remote areas on land.

He also briefly examines proposals to mine so-called near earth objects, such as asteroids and comets, developed by ‘a small number of nascent mining companies, led overwhelmingly by white men from rich countries made famously wealthy in tech’. And people say money doesn’t bring you wisdom.

Part of the rationale for mining is that it provides the means to tackle global warming. Electric vehicles, solar and wind power provide an alternative to fossil fuels. However, Pollon argues these alternatives, and the electrical generators that will need to accompany them, require huge amounts of minerals to sustain their operation. His fear is that the costs of this transition may be greater than the benefits envisioned.

Pollon warns that ‘We are sleepwalking into the future, unaware and woefully unprepared for the expansion of mining that will be required in the near future.’ His Pitfall is an attempt to wake us up. Mining is not something that we can leave to mining companies chasing profits. Christopher Pollon has provided valuable information in identifying the issues we need to think carefully about not only now, but for future generations.

 Christopher Pollon Pitfall: The race to mine the world’s most vulnerable places University of Queensland Press 2024 PB 304pp $34.99

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Pitfall from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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