This is the third case study of this Mining and Water series, in honour of World Water Day.
Previous Mining and Water case studies:
Mining and Water: Benguet
Mining and Water: Marinduque
This case study continues to focus on the small Philippine island of Marinduque, where Canadian company Placer Dome operated a copper mine for thirty years.
“Imagine…being forced into a situation where you lived in a house…and a contractor puts a huge swimming pool up on your roof. You then suddenly receive a secret report that says the roof can cave in at any time and the water can drown you and your children who live below!…How would you feel if you had no other place to live? If you feel desperate, you have just put yourselves in the shoes of…almost 100,000 villagers in my home province of Marinduque.” - Congressman Edmund Reyes from Marinduque.
Since Placer Dome left the Philippines the abandoned Sand Antonio Pit has gradually filled with rainwater. The San Antonio Pit now contains millions of tons of water, which has mixed with mine waste and other toxic chemicals, being held back by failing dams. According to a leaked document from Placer Dome's own environmental consultants, "failure of the dam is a virtual certainty in the near term".
The small island of Marinduque is located within a typhoon belt. Every time it rains, the pressure on the failing dam increases, making the collapse a question of when not if.
The mounting pressure being applied to the failing dam puts over 100,000 villagers below in grave danger, but there is nothing they can do.
When the dam does eventually collapse, much of the surrounding villages will be inundated by flash floods with the contents of the San Antonio Pit which contains dangerous toxic chemicals.
When asked about what can be done about the situation, one common response was "all we can do is sit and wait for the next disaster."
When the first dam collapsed in 1993, the flash flood of toxic waste swept away Thomas' treasured cow and he nearly drowned. With the San Antonio Pit now on the verge of collapse, Thomas knows that his home will be one of the first ones swept under by the coming flash floods, but he has nowhere else go. With his already deteriorating health, he stands little chance of surviving.
“Look, that dam could break at any time, maybe next week, maybe tomorrow, I don’t know. But I do know that when it does happen, my house and my family will probably be destroyed. And just like last time, the company will blame it on an ‘Act of God.’ I want that picture to exist, so that people can know what happened. For that, I would be willing to sacrifice myself.” With those words a brave Marinduqueño snuck a photographer in the back of a truck into Placer Dome’s old copper mine, successfully evading the armed guards still protecting the property. Here he stands in front of the San Antonio Pit, containing the millions of tons of mine waste which will eventually come crashing down on his home. His bravery and determination to put himself in harms way for the sake of this documentation is a stronger testament to the anxiety Marinduqueños have to live with than any picture can offer.
More information on Marinduque:
Statement of the People of Marinduque for the Government and People of Canada
Oxfam Australia’s case report on Marinduque
MiningWatch Canada: Backgrounder on Placer Dome in the Philippines
Mining and Water:
Mining and Water: Benguet
Mining and Water: Marinduque
March 22nd is World Water Day. So for this week I will be sharing a selection of case studies about the impacts of mining on water systems and how that affects people who live nearby. These case studies were all featured when I gave a presentation at Amnesty International’s Water: A Human Right? conference a few weeks ago.
This first case study will focus on the areas surrounding the Victoria Gold Mine in Benguet Province, the Philippines, owned by Lepanto Consolidated.
The province of Benguet, in the northern Philippines, is famous for its beautiful rice terraces along the mountainside.
Rice is of vital importance to the economic, political, and social stability of the Philippines. We eat rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner, and use rice to make many of our deserts.
A few meters from her home, Trixie looks down at the tailings dam for the Victoria Gold Mine, where the waste from the mining process is dumped.
Here is a closer look at the tailings dam where waste from the mining process is dumped at a rate ranging between 1,500 and 2,500 metric tons per day.
A close up look at the surface of the tailings dam. Some of the waste dumped here includes dangerous toxic chemicals such as lead, cyanide, and mercury.
Not all of the waste is toxic. There is also a significan amount of waste rock as well as industrial waste which can be found in and around the tailings dam.
On the right of this photo is the actual dam itself. This is the physical structure which is supposed to hold back the millions of tons of waste from spilling out into the nearby river systems. But this is the third dam built here after the previous two collapsed.
This is the same dam seen from the opposite side. This particular dam has been completely inadequate against the torrential downpour during the yearly rainy season and is especially vulnerable to earthquakes as Benguet is directly above a fault line. For years the chemicals have been leaking out into the nearby river systems.
This is from the same photo above, zoomed in to show a trickle of water flowing out of the dam.
Just a few meters past the dam, contaminated water (left) - carrying with it cyanide, lead, copper, and mercury - joins together with the clean water (right) coming from the mountain springs into the river system.
Here you can see some healthy rice fields along the left side of the river. These fields get their irrigation from the mountain springs behind them. Everything on the other side of the river used to be rice fields as well, but the rice does not grow there anymore because of the toxic chemicals that have entered the river system. You can see that the farmers have built a small barrier to prevent the river from contaminating the other side as well.
Everything you see here used to be healthy rice fields. But the rice will not grow here anymore. According to the Save The Abra River Movement, the siltation and toxic pollution of the rivers deprives communities in Cervantes, a small municipality downriver from the Victoria Gold Mine, of about 7.33 million kg of rice worth US$2.27 million per annum.
This is a close up of the cow in the previous photo. Although there are still some weeds and plants that are resilient enough to survive the contaminated water, they have little nutritional value. As a result, this cow is visibly malnourished.
In Cervantes, a few kilometers down river from the Victoria Gold Mine, Suley sits in the middle of her barren farm which has been contaminated by the toxic chemicals that have leaked out of the tailings dam and into the river system. Her farm has been barren for ten years now.
“If it wasn't for the mine, we would be living a good life,” she says, “but now, life is very hard.” Before, Suley's abundant farm more than adequately provided for her entire extended family. Now they are barely able to provide for their basic needs. Every year they try replanting fresh seeds praying that the soil will eventually regenerate. They will do so again this year, but after ten years, nothing has changed.
According to a fact-finding mission led by British MP Clare Short, as of 2003, there had been 16 serious tailings dam failures in the Philippines in the past twenty years. Additionally, over eight hundred mine sites have been abandoned and have never been cleaned up. Cleanup costs are estimated in the billions of dollars and the damages caused are irreversible.
For more information:
Save the Abra River Movement
the Cordillera People’s Alliance
Lepanto Mining and Life in the Cordillera (the Cordillera are the mountainous regions of the northern Philippines which includes Benguet Province)
Cordillera – Still the Main Hub of Transnational Mining
No Dirty Gold
The Heartless Nature of the Mining Industry
written by Sakura Saunders
Photos by Allan Lissner
The surface of the tailings pond at the Victoria Gold Mine in the Philippines.
Gold mining produces 79 tonnes of waste for every ounce of gold. The only thing more astonishing than the 79 ton per ounce ratio is the fact that this waste is largely toxic. A portion of this waste is drenched with cyanide to extract the microscopic flecks of gold from the ore. The toxic waste, or tailings, then sits in tailing ponds to await its reuse.
The Boac River in Marinduque, the Philippines, remains biologically dead twelve years after Placer Dome's tailings dam collapsed.
There have been over 30 recorded spills of this toxic substance (in either its transport or storage) in the last five years, resulting in massive fish kills and drinking water contamination. In some countries, they dump this cyanide-laced waste directly into the rivers and oceans – a practice banned in the U.S. and Canada.
Acid mine drainage in the Philippines.
And the untreated ground up ore? Well, this is likely toxic as well. Wherever you find gold, you also typically find sulfides, such as pyrite (a.k.a fool’s gold), and heavy metals. These ground up sulfides need only to mix with air and water to create sulfuric acid, which creates acid mine drainage.
contaminated water (left) - carrying with it cyanide, lead, copper, and mercury - joins together with the clean water (right)
Not only is this acid water destructive to local plant life and water systems, but this acid also leaches out heavy metals – such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which in turn pollute the air and the water. It has been estimated that metals mining accounts for 96 percent of the world’s arsenic emissions.
Neville "Chappy" Williams, an aboriginal elder of the Wiradjuri Nation (in what is now known as Australia) pauses outside a jewelery store. Chappy has been one of the leaders in the fight to stop Barrick Gold from destroying Lake Cowal, the sacred heartland of the Wiradjuri people.
80 percent of gold is used for jewelry. Additionally, it has been estimated that enough gold has already been dug up and stored in vaults to last current demand for 20 years.
Targets politically marginalized populations
Ramon, of the indigenous Alangan tribe in the Philippines who face the threat of displacement from their traditional land.
50 percent of newly mined gold is taken from Native lands. For many indigenous people, who often rely on their environment for food and necessities, mining threatens not only their livelihood, but also their traditional way of life. Their lands tend to be vulnerable to encroachment because of their lack of power within their country’s political system; their land and water rights are often ignored while their resources are exploited and their environments destroyed.
Promotes corruption and militarization
Sheila is one of 258 men, women, and children, from Mtakuja village who were displaced in late July 2007 to make way for an expansion of the Geita Gold Mine. The refugees' court case against the company was recently thrown out of the court after a suspicious meeting behind closed doors between their attorney, the judge, and the team of lawyers representing the company. The three community representatives who travelled 1300km to state their case were never even given the chance to address the judge. In the unlikely event that they can afford to continue with the case, they will have to start all over again.
The “resource curse” is a term coined to describe how resource rich countries have statistically lower economic growth rates than resource deprived ones. This happen largely because countries with great material wealth also have a high propensity for high level government corruption. These large scale operations often negotiate the displacement of peoples and destruction of livelihoods directly with the national governments, despite resistance from local communities and even governments.
Mark Ekepa and Anga Atalu, of the Porgera Land Owners Association, travelled half way around the world to attend the annual shareholders meeting of Barrick Gold to raise complains of human rights violations at the hands of Barrick's private security at the Porgera Gold Mine in Papua New Guinea.
Gold’s global exploitation is backed by both private security and military might. Many of the same mercenaries who are now finding work in Iraq got their start guarding mines and oil fields. These private militaries operate with impunity in dealing with local conflicts that often end in injuries and even deaths. In some countries, mining corporations will make direct payment to the police or the country’s military to guard their gold mine, leading to conflicts of interest when those same police repress protestors at anti-mining demonstrations.