It is that time. I am getting ready to move, as strange as that may sound in our current locked-down world. Not particularly far, going west and down south along the coast. Moving into the location of the largest natural gas field in Europe, discovered in 1959 and first exploited in 1963. The Dutch fossil fuel boom, still going strong after about 60 years, but not without hurdles and the end is in sight. Extraction has resulted in subsidence of the land surface and has induced earthquakes. This has caused health, socio-economic, and environmental  problems locally in such ways that the government has announced halting gas extraction entirely by 2030 for safety reasons, and only in special circumstances from 2022 onward. The goal is greener energy to meet the Paris agreement goals.

The Green Deal, an ambitious EU policy package with as aim to make Europe climate neutral in 2050. A commentary in Nature in Nov/Dec 2020 however provided a critical note. The EU relies heavily on agricultural imports, it allows Europeans to farm less intensively, yet by importing products that are produced less sustainably, in effect it exports its emissions. For now carbon accounting under the Paris agreement only covers emissions produced within a nation, not those embedded in goods consumed there but produced elsewhere. 

It is a strategy the western world has long engaged in; mining resources elsewhere and let local communities deal with the waste and associated environmental problems. Mining.

The price we pay for winning natural resources is high, even though it may seem there is enough to go around as new sources are continuously found, scarcity may not be our immediate problem. Problems are big but not always in sight. I am talking about Tailings.

Tailings are the materials left over from mining processes.

A tailings dam is typically an earth-fill embankment dam used to store byproducts of mining operations after separating the ore from the gangue. Tailings can be liquid, solid, or a slurry of fine particles, and are usually highly toxic and potentially radioactive. These embankments are some of the most colossal man-made structures on the planet, and the quest for economies of scale prompt mining companies to dig deeper and larger pits.

The waste material has the potential to damage the environment, by releasing toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury, also by acid drainage, or by damaging aquatic wildlife that rely on clean water. Yet, the biggest danger is dam failure; on average, worldwide there is one big accident each year involving a tailings dam, with devastating consequences for communities, wildlife and ecosystems.

Even though these structures are massive, it is still unclear how many of these exists worldwide. Recently, GRID-Arendal launched the world’s first public database of mine tailings aiming to prevent deadly disasters.

It is about time to make these wastelands visible as many of these are in rural lands, affecting communities long after mining companies have left. Such as the failing of the Church Rock Dam in 1979, in New Mexico, releasing 1100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands. A toxic flood with ongoing devastating consequences that still have not be adequately addressed 40 years later.

A symbol of societal indifference to the impacts of mining on Indigenous lands. There are many more.

Green Deal. It is time we assess the global impact of our energy/resource habits and dependencies.