MAC: Mines and Communities

The World Bank Eir Criticises Mine Waste Tailings

Published by MAC on 2003-11-26
Source: Mineral Policies Institute

The World Bank EIR criticises mine waste tailings

Commentary by Igor O'Neil, Mineral Policies Institute

26 November 2003

The newly released World Bank Extractive Industries Review is available at

The World Bank - commissioned report is thoroughly critical of mine waste (tailings) dumping in both rivers and oceans, known as Riverine Tailings Disposal and Submarine Tailings Disposal - STD: "STD should be avoided especially in island regions where this method of disposal may not assure people's sustainable livelihoods."

Ocean dumping of mine waste - STD - is a destructive practice planned for several new mines owned by Australian and Canadian companies including BHP-Billiton, Weda Bay Nickel, Highlands Pacific, Falonbridge and others. It is already in use by Rio Tinto, Newmont and Placer.

The outrageous process of dumping mine waste directly into rivers is still carried out by mines funded or built by Freeport, Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton. These ocean/river waste dumping mines are found in the developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

Excerpts from the new World Bank Extractive Industries Review:

p59: "The WBG should apply the precautionary principle and not fund projects that would require submarine tailings disposal until balanced and unbiased research, accountable to balanced stakeholder management, demonstrates the safety of such technology. Future decisions should be based on the outcome of such research and be guided by it. The EIR further recommends that, irrespective of the final outcome of the research, STD and tailings disposal in rivers not be used in areas such as coral reefs that have important ecological functions or cultural significance or in coastal waters used by indigenous peoples and local communities for subsistence "

also p34:

"Riverine tailing disposal is considered by some companies to be a practice of the past that is no longer acceptable. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that this method of waste disposal causes severe damage to water bodies and surrounding environments, and at least three major mining companies-Falconbridge, WMC, and BHP-have made public statements that they will not use riverine tailings disposal in future projects. In practice, this technology is being phased out due to recognition of its negative consequences: today only three mines in the world, all on the island of New Guinea, still use this method to dispose of mine wastes. The EIR agrees with the call for a ban on riverine tailings disposal.

Submarine tailings disposal (STD) is currently the waste disposal procedure preferred by many mining companies planning large-scale operations in mountainous areas of active seismicity, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. If major projects proposed for the region receive permission to use STD, there could be a significant increase in its use in the next 10 years for already approved and proposed large-scale mining operations. This is also a critical region of maximum marine biodiversity and thus of global marine conservation significance. The effects of STD (if any) on tropical marine life, marine resource use, and ecosystem function are not well understood, and there is an urgent need to address the major gap in biological data on the possible effects of STD on tropical marine ecosystems, particularly in the Indo-Pacific deep sea.70 On the basis of the precautionary principle, since marine biodiversity has global conservation significance and since the possible effects of STD on the tropical marine ecosystem are not well understood, STD should be avoided especially in island regions where this method of disposal may not assure people's sustainable livelihoods.

Almost all STD operations worldwide, whether disposing at shallow depths or in the deep sea, have had problems, including pipe breaks, wider than expected dispersal of tailings in the sea, smothering of the benthic organism (although this is predicted) and loss of biodiversity, increased turbidity, introduction to the sea and marine biota of metals and milling agents (chemicals, such as cyanide, detergents, and frothing agents), and loss of potentially re-mine-able metals from tailings in the deep sea.

The EIR heard numerous other concerns about current as well as anticipated environmental and socioeconomic impacts of submarine tailings disposal in Southeast Asia.71 STD presents an inherent economic risk to local and export fisheries, for example, because of real or perceived contamination of marine resources. It may affect large and often endangered marine life, including whales, dolphins, and marine turtles, and it may raise the risks to human health through direct or indirect exposure to mining wastes. Mining procedures such as STD may have a negative impact on numerous other important socioeconomic and environmental factors, ranging from reduced marine tourism potential to additional, often illegal small-scale mining activities by opportunistic individuals. Environmental impact assessments of mining operations with STD as their main mechanism for waste management do not adequately assess any adverse effects in the deep sea and marine food web, and such potential impacts should be included in the scope and terms of reference for such activities."

Igor O'Neill, Mineral Policy Institute
Phone +62 81 286 12 286
Fax +62 21 791 816 83

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