WSJ article highlights repeated mine failures

History is full of mining leaks, spills and downright disasters that have at least impaired and at most wreaked havoc on the streams, wildlife and landscapes around them. Far, far fewer are the stories of “harmless” mines, maybe because they don’t exist.

The problem is that mines bring hazardous material from underground – where they’re safely locked away – to the surface where the companies and taxpayers then have to deal with them. At that point, the wastes are ticking time bombs, waiting to go off when it’s least expected.

The mine wastes above the Animas River were contained until Environmental Protection Agency workers made a mistake. People want to blame the EPA, but if it hadn’t been the EPA workers, it might have been someone else. The point is, the wastes were there.

A recent Wall Street Journal feature highlights the worldwide threats posed by mine waste locked behind supposedly secure tailings dams. While the story focuses on the dam that broke in southeast Brazil in November, laying waste to a 2-mile-wide valley, it points to the universal problem of trying to safely store waste.

According to the article, “In theory, tailings dams are intended to last forever. In practice, they fail often enough that industry engineers themselves are sounding alarms. ”

Tintina Resources would have Montanans believe that all their new techniques will allow them to “do it right.” They claim their cement storage facility will safely contain their mine tailings. They claim there’s no way the acid-producing rock that they will dredge up will contaminate the groundwater, Sheep Creek or the Smith River. How many companies have made similar claims?

Here are some facts about cement-paste tailings:

  1. The paste-tailings concept is largely experimental so no one can state what the material’s design life is, when it breaks down or how to deal with subsequent leaching of metals and acid. Anyone who’s dodged street potholes knows that concrete doesn’t last forever.
  2. Keeping water out of the tailings impoundment to minimize erosion of the “paste” depends on a liner system that is no different than those that have failed or leaked at other tailings facilities. All liners leak. You can’t keep water from eventually getting into the material.
  3. Tintina is proposing to excavate the hole for the impoundment down below the groundwater table. That is an absolute recipe for leakage and problems as the water soaks the liner and eventually the tailings.
  4. Knight-Piezold, the company designing Tintina’s tailings impoundment, is the same engineering firm that designed the Mt. Polley impoundment in British Columbia, Canada. The Mt. Polley facility failed catastrophically in 2014, trashing streams and a lake in one of the best sockeye-producing watersheds in the world.
  5. Add to that, the guys running the Mt. Polley impoundment when it failed – AMEC – have been contracted to construct the mine and facilities for….Tintina!

Tintina may have new techniques, but their people aren’t new. It’s like the private rocket company SpaceX being excited about their new technology and then watching three rockets fail.

Montana shouldn’t be the guinea pig for new mine technology. That doesn’t bode well for Montanans or their rivers.