International Ban on Submarine Mine Tailings Disposal Urged

MANADO, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, May 2, 2001 (ENS) - An international conference here on the dumping of mine waste at sea, known as submarine tailings disposal, concluded Monday with a declaration which calls for an international ban on the practice.

The mining industry is currently attempting to open dozens of mines across the Asia Pacific region that would rely on submarine tailings disposal as a method of getting rid of their waste.

Scientists, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, government officials and affected community members from the Asia-Pacific region, North America and the United Kingdom met to discuss the ocean dumping of mine waste.

They demanded that mining companies accept liability for the impacts on coastal communities of what they call an "environmentally and socially destructive technique."

The conference discussed case studies from submarine tailings disposal mines operating throughout the Asia-Pacific region - in Indonesia at Newmont Mining Corporation gold mines at Minahasa on the island of Sulawesi and Batu Hijau on the island of Sumbawa; at the Marinduque Mining Corporation mine at Marinduque in the Philippines, and at other mines across the region.

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Calancan Bay in the Philippines with tailings outlet from the Marinduque Mining Corporation, one of Asia's largest mining companies (Photo courtesy Marinduque Mining)
These revealed threats to marine resources, negative health impacts, devastation of coastal economies, and scientific inaccuracies.

The participants concluded that submarine tailings disposal destroys fragile coastal ecosystems because it smothers living organisms with silt or drives them away, and degrades marine and fresh water environments. It decreases biological diversity and threatens ecological balance by allowing heavy metals and other pollutants to enter the food chain.

The effects of submarine tailings disposal (STD) are immediate, long term, and environmentally unsustainable, and restoration of areas where tailings have been dumped is impossible, participants agreed.

Submarine tailings disposal is illegal in Canada and the United States, has never been proposed in Australia.

"Companies like U.S. based Newmont are not permitted to practice STD in their home countries. Instead they cynically exploit the people and resources of countries in the Asia-Pacific region which have less rigorous environmental regulations," said Shanna Langdon of Project Underground, a mining industry watchdog based in California.

Minahasa employs Indonesiašs first submarine tailings disposal system. Tailings are detoxified in a two-stage process to precipitate dissolved elements and destroy cyanide, the company says. The tailings are then deposited offshore, at a depth of 82 meters (266 feet).

The Minahasa gold mine is expected to cease production in 2003 after mining is completed in December of this year, Newmont says. The company's Batu Hijau mine began operation in late 1999. With reserves of 9.9 billion pounds of copper and 11.7 million ounces of gold, Batu Hijau has an expected mine life of 20 years.

The application of submarine tailings disposal has disastrous social, economic, cultural and health effects on coastal communities, conference delegates concluded. It violates the basic human right to a safe and clean environment, and adversely affects community health through contamination with heavy metals and other toxic substances. Women and children are particularly vulnerable.

The practice degrades marine and freshwater environments affecting fisheries, recreational use and livelihoods, and is done without access to adequate information and without prior community consent, the conference heard. Delegates pledged to work with affected communities to prevent further development of submarine tailings disposal.

"We strongly urge governments and the international community to ban the practice of STD throughout the world," the group declared.