Emerging Europe is rich in minerals but mining and processing them comes at an environmental and social cost. Countries must promote sustainable mining practices to grow the industry without jeopardising local ecosystems.
In May 2022, Slovakia’s Slaná River turned orange as polluted water flowing from an iron ore mine killed the river’s fish and other wildlife. The pollution was diluted enough by the time it reached Hungary to avoid killing fish there, but the iron and zinc in the water upstream covered the gills of fish and slowly suffocated them—wreaking havoc for several small Slovakian villages.
Local villagers called it a “catastrophe”, with one telling Reuters that, “There is no living creature underneath the pebbles, we can see only rust”.
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The Slaná River incident was only the latest in a long line of fish kills and other environmental disasters resulting from mining and metal processing.
As the European Union works to increase mining within the bloc to make it less dependent on raw material imports from Russia and China, it must ensure its capacity is scaled up in a sustainable manner to prevent future tragedy.
Understanding the problem
Several parts of the mining process—whether opencast, deep mining, or spoil dumping are used—can lead to water pollution. Mining necessitates large-scale land disturbance and exposes rock to air and water that otherwise would not be.
Acid mine drainage occurs when a large quantity of rock that contains sulphide minerals is excavated and exposed to oxygen and water, creating sulphuric acid. As the water acidifies, bacteria can accelerate the acidification and oxidation processes and lead to even more trace metals leaching from the rock. Rain and surface drainage from the mine site deposit the acid into nearby water sources, making the water unusable and killing aquatic life.
Heavy metal pollution results from metals within excavated rock being exposed to water and carried downstream. Acid mine drainage and heavy metal pollution continue for as long as the rocks containing sulphide minerals and metals are exposed to water and air—sometimes hundreds or thousands of years after the mine is abandoned.
When modern mines are closed, the pumps that control water levels are switched off — stopping the oxidation of exposed seams but continuing to dissolve concentrated minerals and metals. Groundwater rises until it reaches the surface or discharges into aquifers, carrying pollutants with it. As this water is aerated in rivers, metals like iron can again oxidise — responsible for the ochre colour of rivers like the Slaná.
Extracting the desired minerals from the raw materials dug out of a mine also generates pollution from the processing chemical agents, toxic to wildlife and humans alike, used to separate target minerals in ore. These can leach, leak or spill from a mine site into local bodies of water.
Bauxite—a mix of minerals including aluminium, iron oxides and titanium dioxides—must be mined from the ground and then washed in hot sodium hydroxide to extract its aluminium, but this produces a radioactive and cancerous mixture of heavy metals and processing chemicals known as “red mud” can burn human skin and is notoriously difficult to store.
In 2010, a dam in Hungary holding a large reservoir of this toxic red sludge burst—releasing a slurry that swept cars off of roads and damaged bridges, houses, and the local nature. Four people were killed, another 120 were injured, and 400 more were evacuated, although a total of at least 7,000 people were directly affected.
Robert Fidrich, of Friends of the Earth in Hungary, said: “Now we, the public, will have to pay the real bill. You can forget about cleaning up those villages … nobody will be able to live there for 10 years or more. It has affected the lives of hundreds of people.”
Toxic sludge and politics
Europe’s largest bauxite refinery—already 1,500 acres—has been at the centre of recent environmental protests over its efforts to expand.
Located in Aughinish, the plant has created 35 million tonnes of waste, which are stored on the banks of Ireland’s River Shannon. Locals say residues from the refinery have made them and animals sick. An investigation in 1997 found that the waste was hazardous and the local groundwater was contaminated, but blood and soil samples which could have conclusively linked health issues to the plant were somehow lost by state authorities.
The Aughinish plant is owned by UC Rusal—a Russian company headquartered in Moscow that is the world’s second largest producer of aluminium. UC Rusal resulted from the merger between companies owned by oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska in 2000 after Deripaska emerged as the victor of the often-violent “aluminium wars” between oligarchs scrambling to acquire state assets in the 1990s. Abramovich and Deripaska have each been Russia’s richest person at various points in time.
UC Rusal has been involved with recent spills and fish kills around the world. It is a major shareholder in Nornickel—the world’s largest producer of palladium and nickel—which was fined 2.1 billion US dollars in 2020 by the Russian government after it leaked 21,000 tonnes of diesel into Siberia’s Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers.
While Nornickel has taken a number of measures to compensate for the damage and even introduced a system to monitor the condition of the permafrost beneath its industrial facilities, in contrast, in 2022, the Jamaican government suspended UC Rusal’s license after pollution from its bauxite facility in Rio Cobre led to fish kills. “Public health and the environmental heritage cannot be sacrificed for economic development,” said Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, an environmental scientist and the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust.
In February, the Ukrainian government seized over 300 assets linked to Deripaska and Rusal including the Mykolayiv alumina refinery after a top anti-corruption court ruled they fell under sanctions imposed on the Russian government for its 2022 invasion. Deripaska is also subject to personal sanctions by the UK, the US and the EU for supporting Russian aggression.
In May, Rusal reported that its net profit fell by around 44 per cent in 2022, as it faced logistics challenges, increased costs and market volatility sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Human rights concerns
In 2021, Human Rights Watch warned that automobile companies need to do more to address abuses in their aluminium supply chains and the bauxite mines they source from.
Car manufacturers used nearly a fifth of all aluminium consumed worldwide in 2019 and they are forecast to double their aluminium consumption by 2050 as they transition to electric vehicles.
“Car manufacturers see aluminium as a critical material for the transition to fuel-efficient vehicles,” said Jim Wormington, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“They should use their ever-increasing purchasing power to protect the communities whose land and environments are harmed by the aluminium industry.”
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