In my last column, we looked at the environmental risks of the mining industry, leaving us with a question: how do we reconcile the uncomfortable realities of modern mining with those of climate change, environmental integrity, and the rights of Canadians to health and natural beauty?
Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada, a coalition concerned with the shortcomings of Canadian mining nationally and abroad, had plenty to say.
Nova Scotia is in the early stages of a self-proclaimed “gold rush,” encouraging industrial investment in open pit mines, often built overtop old mining projects repeatedly dug and abandoned since the 1860s. (See my last column for more about their chemical consequences). The modern mines proposed in Nova Scotia will come with the historic dangers of arsenic, mercury, and sometimes cyanide in their tailings.
Regardless of the quality of these mines and accompanying regulations, they represent a genuine danger to Nova Scotian ecology given their use and manufacture of toxic substances on site, especially in the case of Cochrane Hill, built near the St. Mary’s River, threatening decades of dedicated conservation, restoration, and protection work.
It’s fair to call these risks unacceptable, says Kneen, and that goes double for gold.
As he describes it, only about 10–15% of gold mined globally goes to any practical use, chiefly in electronics. The rest is pulled from the ground and promptly locked in vaults. Historically, the currencies of many nations were tied to gold and valued in relation to it.
That’s no longer the case, but the practice of preserving one’s financial assets in gold continues, an obsolete agreement between wealthy banks and individuals that this conductive metal has some abstract monetary value, and can therefore be bought and sold regardless of the state of one’s economy. The marketplace can collapse, the fortunes of the rich could disappear, but their gold would remain.
It’s hard not to think we could accomplish the same by certifying bags of sand as having sturdy market value or perhaps by paining granite yellow and shoving it in a vault. Instead we use gold, causing companies across the planet to scar landscapes with open pit mines and extract arbitrary fortunes in the form of a metal that will likely be put to no practical use.
Gold, says Kneen, is a metal with enormous recycling potential. It recycles easily and cleanly, unlike lead, which takes several nasty processes to revive and reuse. The amount of gold presently at play in the electronics of the world could be recycled to meet global demand for a century or more, he says, and if the vaulted masses of gold inflated with artificial value were added to the equation, we might never need to mine gold again.
Our search for gold, while strictly profitable, makes no sense. There is no justification for it, no benefit to the human enterprise, no greater good to offset whatever environmental fallout might result. It’s like the global demand for rhino horn, driving several species to gruesome extinction so as to steal and snort a substance that has value only in the minds of people buying it.
Money, in either case, should not be its own moral justification, especially when it comes at the expense of the St. Mary’s River and its resurging Atlantic salmon.
Last week we heard from Michael Parsons in this column with his informed perspective on mining in Canada generally. He suggests that mining for other substances, such as cobalt and copper, is considerably more justifiable than gold because they support our national transition to a renewable economy. This transition will require more mining so we need to prioritize sustainability and safety when permitting mines. And it’s better that mining here, under Canadian regulations than in countries with flimsy environmental laws.
Kneen’s perspective differs.
He agrees we can justify mining for certain renewable-energy metals but feels it’s extremely important we don’t simply shift existing and rising energy demands onto renewables. It’s critical, he explains, that we reduce our overall use of energy and get cars off the road, in particular by way of enhanced public transit and energy efficiency.
The majority of Canadians live in cities that could do away with enormous numbers of vehicles and shed a great deal of energy demand. Once we’ve come to grips with the amount of energy we actually need, says Kneen, then we can grapple with how much mining is genuinely necessary.
Giving the mining industry a free pass and a blank cheque, in short, or calling them necessary, could do enormous harm, he says, and for very little public good. We need an informed and intelligent national strategy, not a free-for-all.
Mining, he says, is never sustainable, because the metals in question are finite and the toxins mining produces and releases are permanent. Arsenic, as mentioned in last week’s column, doesn’t break down.
These facilities will inevitably leak over the decades and need monitoring forever. Such leaks and maintenance can end up costing more than the value of the original mine. Ask the Yukon and Colorado, where the costs and consequences of old mining wastes are nightmarish. At many sites cleanup isn’t an option; all we can do is perpetual containment.
It’s very easy to have a mine approved in Canada, says Kneen. Few are turned down following the environmental review process. This needs to change, with potential projects facing stricter environmental hurdles and the and informed consent of landowners and communities. Canada has a poor record in this area.
In addition to often weak regulations, Canada has a history of poor enforcement, Kneen says, relying on self-monitoring with few prosecutions for mining violations. Often failure to comply with federal regulations, such as effluent standards, draws a stern letter instead of litigation.
At one time it was possible for private organizations and citizens to prosecute companies. Such “private prosecutions,” however, haven’t had much success since the 1990s, Kneen says, since the federal government adopted the policy of taking these prosecutions over (which is their right) and shelving them indefinitely. This is exactly what happened when MiningWatch Canada attempted a private prosecution of those responsible for the Mount Polley Mine Disaster of 2014.
So, the proposed gold mines of Nova Scotia have no genuine value, will produce toxic waste, and will permanently threaten the watershed. If something goes wrong, locals should be prepared to live with the consequences.
Prosecution from any level of government, and the responsibility of industry in cleaning it up, is far from guaranteed. Some Canadian mines can perhaps be justified under stricter circumstances and with greater regulatory zeal, but not those of Nova Scotia, certainly not for gold.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Halifax Magazine. This article is the second of two articles on the subject of mining. The first can be read here.