Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: January 2007

Friday, January 12, 2007

Mining & The Environment

Each year of schooling, my courses become more interesting. Last term I had a course on Renewable Energy which proved enlightening, as well as a very practical Engineering Economics course that taught me many principles that older engineers had begun to explain to me during work terms in the mining industry. I had an Underground Mining Methods course that reinforced my interest in UG mining (as opposed to boring old Open Pit); and had an amazing professor for Groundwater Hydrology - a pertinent elective given the problems with groundwater availabilty and contamination that I've been reading about in news and books (i.e. Jared Diamond's "Collapse").

This term my courses also seem to be on the right track, especially Mining & The Environment with Marcello Veiga. He is the most fun professor that anyone could ever have, employing his ukelele / guitar / harmonica and writing hilarious songs for us. But he's also involved with many important causes in mining and works with the UN to help save artisinal miners from mercury poisoning and fight poverty. Click on his photograph to read an entertaining and accurate article about his teaching style and work.

For our first assignment I have written a response regarding the Lake Cowal controversy in Australia where a cyanide heap leach mine has just began production. Here's my article below. Leave a comment with your thoughts on anything and everything I've said.

Gold cyanidation, or heap leaching, is a controversial processing technique. Operations utilizing a chemical as poisonous as cyanide must do it extremely carefully and safely. In the past, some companies have caused irreparable harm to local environments, threatening the health and livelihood of the inhabitants; both human and animal. Examples include Summitville and Baia Mare. It is for this reason that new operations intending to utilize cyanide must combat pressure from government, aboriginals, local citizens, NGOs and ENGOs.

The Cowal mine in New South Wales, Australia is one example of a recently completed mine that uses cyanidation and faces fierce opposition to its methods.

The article from MiningWatch explains that Lake Cowal is the largest inland lake in the state, is protected by international agreements for migratory birds, is a significant wetland, and is home to many native and endangered species. This article claims that the lake is sacred Wiradjuri land containing many artifacts, and that the mine will exclude the Wiradjuri people from using the lake. The source for the article is the Coalition to Protect Lake Cowal, which is fiercely opposed to the mine.

MiningWatch gives an appearance of an objective story, but they’ve received most of their information only from the Coalition. This gives me doubts; I don't believe the Wiradjuri people would completely give up the rights to visit a lake if it was as sacred as the Coalition claims. I find it more likely that the natives opposed to this mine represent a minority fraction of the natives who agreed with Barrick to allow it. The facts given at the beginning of the MiningWatch article outline some of the problems faced by Barrick. Their job will be to ensure that the wildlife is only minimally affected. My experience at Highland Valley has shown me that mines can actually serve to protect wildlife from hunting and other disturbances like development and logging. With the world watching, Barrick will be putting in extra effort to please the public.

The article from ABC news outlines more material issues regarding the operation. From Barrick and the Premier of New South Wales, this article explains some of the benefits such as 240 permanent jobs and all the tertiary jobs for local suppliers and businesses. Other benefits include the jobs, training, and education offered to the local community. Hopefully the workface can remain employable after the closure of the mine with the skills and knowledge gained with the help of Barrick. An independent survey shows 80% of residents support the Lake Cowal Mine. The Lake Cowal Action Group provided ABC with some drawbacks, namely the loss of water for local farmers, possible cyanide risks, and failure to resolve native title issues.

This Cowal Lake situation involves three major problems that have led to the large controversy. The problem of water management is common around the world and with climate change and large-scale agriculture and mining, fair and reasonable permitting must be employed based on accurate availability. Australia is especially sensitive to these problems and thus should be much more careful before handing out permits in the future. If the Cowal Mine is using water within its permit, and farmers are running out of water, then this represents a failure by the government and needs to be address immediately.

The second major problem at hand is that of potentially dangerous mining practices in sensitive ecosystems. The Cowal Mine is the first operation certified under the new International Cyanide Management Code; an independent third-party auditor. It conducts follow-up audits regularly, one year after startup and every three years thereafter. A committee in the UN Environment Programme developed this Code. This is hopeful given that poor farming practices and feral animals have ravaged Australia, thus many unique animals are on the decline. Lake Cowal represents an important habitat and ecosystem, and coupled with Australia’s oversensitivity and poor environmental health, the government must be very careful when conducting environmental assessments. If the Lake Cowal area is as unique and sensitive as many believe it is, the Australian government should have asked Barrick to propose a processing technique without cyanide before allowing the environmental assessment to pass. Cyanide use must be looked at worldwide to determine if it is worth the risks. When disasters still occur in developed countries with environmental guidelines, imagine the potential for harm in developing nations where guidelines and enforcement are minimal. Perhaps the total elimination of cyanide use should be considered on a worldwide basis? With regards to Cowal Lake, the mine is already operating and is using cyanide. With the world watching, the largest gold mining company in the world – Barrick – will make sure to take advantage of this opportunity to prove that they can use cyanide responsibly.

The last major problem is that of aboriginal land claims. More than one tribe of Wiradjuri people made claims to the land, and the winning party was the one who agreed with Barrick to allow the mine. If this is a problem, it is in the courts and does not appear to be Barrick’s responsibility to resolve. Native land claims are a global problem and one that governments have been attempting to solve for many years. The problem presents great difficulties because governments have broken promises to native peoples, and now must cause economic harm to current residents to satisfy old treaties. With the addition of competing claims by native bands, it is impossible to solve many land claims without harming some of the parties involved.

The issues in the Lake Cowal Mine stretch beyond this single location, and appear all over the world. A more fundamental approach is required in order to lay the foundation to solve these problems on a global scale. Dangerous mining practices must have stringent regulations that apply to operations regardless of where they are located; this prevents exploitation in areas with weak regulation. Water management and permitting must be made a priority by many governments in order to prevent conflict between such parties as mining, agriculture, and city residents. Native Land claims must be settled as quickly and equitably as possible in order to give sufficient time for tensions to ease and streamline the development of future mining operations.

Articles Chosen:

"Wiradjuri Nation Opposes Barrick Gold at Lake Cowal", 7 March 2006

"Premier to Open Lake Cowal Gold Mine", 29 September 2006

Other References:

“Social Responsibility Case Studies"

“Lake Cowal”, 6 October 2006

"First Operation Certified Under International Cyanide Management Code", 17 April 2006

Toronto Visit

After my exams in December I had a much needed visit to Toronto for a few weeks. Highlights include visiting family I hadn't seen in far too long, rock climbing (introducing basics of indoor climbing to Dan, Brent and Maxine), a killer LAN party at Purdy's, unexpectedly delicious and surprisingly inexpensive Dim Sum with Chris & Dan & Purdy at Yiu Wah in Chinatown, rekindling my interest in martial arts at the Trinity Jun Fan & Kali school downtown, a unique New Years Party at Christin's, discovering the joys of the Nintendo Wii, playing football in the pouring rain with 17 other high school friends, playing street hockey with the good old hockey group, helping my Dad building his airplane, going to a jazz fusion show for the Indian-influenced band "Monsoon" at the Rex, and stuffing myself with delicious food. And these are just the highlights.

This visit resulted in a new appreciation for the city, in various ways: I discovered that outdoor rock climbing is available and not too far away; sushi is just as delicious, albeit more expensive; dim sum is just as delicious, and even less expensive; martial arts is available from a fantastic school now that a former student at my old defunct school has begun his own (Trinity Jun Fan & Kali); it's hard to see your family (close & extended) only once or twice a year; I really miss interacting with my best friends who mostly live in and around Toronto (I don't know enough nerds in Vancouver); and the subway system is a pretty efficient means of transportation.

Check out random photos of just a few of these events by clicking the thumbnail above.