- 19 Apr 23
The island of Ireland has been designated a Green Sacrifice Zone for mining, with over 25% of the land being made available for prospecting. How did it come to this? And how many of us are aware of the enormous risks to the environment – and to Irish citizens?
Ireland is on the brink of a New Mining Disaster, with an astonishing 28% of the total land area in the Republic currently cleared for mining prospecting. Meanwhile, 25% of the total land area of Northern Ireland has been similarly designated. A mind-melting 69.1% of the local authority area for Derry and Strabane, close to Donegal, is covered by such mining concessions.
And the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland has, since 2016, awarded 13 prospecting licences to firms seeking to extract gold, silver and diamonds, among other precious metal and mineral deposits from Ulster soil. “Rural Ireland is in danger of being ravaged,” Gort-based environmentalist Jacintha van Roij told me. In case people suspect that this might be an exaggeration, we can look across the Irish Sea.
In Scotland, according to a report published recently by The Guardian, only 7.7% of land can be prospected; in Wales the figure is 6.4%; and in England it is just 0.2%. Wales, a country that recently had to allocate almost £300 million to deal with the legacy of old mines polluting rivers, has learned some hard lessons. Clearly, Ireland has not, allocating 140 times more of its land to mining prospecting than England. It is an astounding thought.
It is, however, no accident. Environmental and human rights activist Lynda Sullivan, who has worked with Friends of the Earth and Environmental Justice Network Ireland, points out that Ireland – North and South – has invested heavily in creating a prospector-friendly geological map of the entire country. Emma Karran, of Futureproof Clare – a piano teacher as well as a representative with Clare Participation Network – explained to me how the Irish government aggressively promotes mining at international conferences, boasting about Ireland’s “pragmatic” environmental standards.
“Ireland is seen as the most attractive place to come to mine in the world,” says Emma. Government engagement with local communities is not nearly so enthusiastic. While transparency is mentioned numerous times in the Irish government’s policy document on mining, titled Policy Statement on Mineral Exploration and Mining, and published in December 2022, the reality seems very different. Anthony McNulty, a Wicklow-based community activist, said that when he and a group of local farmers approached prospectors nearby, the prospectors told them that they had been advised to move everything in at night and move everything out at night, and say as little to the locals as possible.
“It’s done in that way to keep communities in the dark,” Lynda Sullivan reflects. “We are told nothing,” Jacintha van Roij adds. “Everything we’ve learned, we’ve had to uncover ourselves.” It’s not the communities alone that are kept in the dark. By all accounts, the local councils are given little or no information either.
Of course, this sort of behaviour by offices of the State is nothing new. “We learned quickly not to trust these people,” Nuala Geoghegan told me about their experience during the 1990s, when investigations were going on into pollution in Askeaton, Co. Limerick. “They have all the tricks of the trade,” her husband, Pat, interjected.
One of these tricks, when anyone complains, is for the government to plead that it’s only a prospecting license. Nothing to worry about. In 2001, in an Irish Supreme Court case concerning mining in Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, a senior officer from the Department of Energy was quoted as saying: “The holder of a prospecting license does not have a guarantee of obtaining a mining license in respect of the prospective mine. Nevertheless, if it is proven that there are reserves there, there is a high likelihood of the mine being granted to the holder of the license.”
The whole point of prospecting is, of course, to find materials that can be mined commercially at a significant profit. Why is this happening? There is a widely held view that only poor and desperate countries allow mining. Or if the mines are in rich countries, they’ll be in the poorest, remotest parts. There’s a lot of mining in Alaska. And there is also controversy.
The massive new Donlin Gold Mine, located in Southwest Alaska’s Kuskokwim River basin, is so rich that, if the promoters are to be believed, it’ll produce 39 million ounces of gold, operate for nearly three decades and employ hundreds of workers a year. But indigenous locals are opposing it vigorously, insisting that the impact of the mine on fish, wildlife and culture, in the form of damaged habitat and long-term pollution, outweigh any potential financial gains. There, as here, it is a question of short-term jobs versus the long-term devastation inflicted on the environment. Ireland is no longer a poor country. Why are we making such poor choices? What forces are driving the decision-making process?
The term “regulatory capture” describes a state wherein mining interests essentially write the legislation. We are familiar with that phenomenon in other spheres here, with Big Tech seeming to effectively write our Data Centre policies; and our approach to Data Harvesting. I suspect, however, that it goes further: that the Irish political class and civil service alike suffer from ideology capture.
They can only think in terms of growth and GDP. They are so proud of the reputation they have fashioned for Ireland as being pragmatic, and solving every problem the multinationals face, that they will not let concern for the environment get in the way of new investment and more growth.
It also seems that at EU level, decisions have been made to ensure greater security of mineral supply, and that Ireland has offered itself as one of the Green Sacrifice Zones to achieve that. Green Sacrifice Zone is our term. You should be reading a lot more about it over the coming months.
Mining Is Getting Worse Not Better
“Have you heard about Lisheen? Now there’s a modern, well-managed mine.”
The Irish government’s policy document on mining seeks to make a clear distinction between the bad old mining days and the ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ mining practices of today.
The government lists Galmoy mine in Kilkenny and the Lisheen mine in Tipperary as best-case examples of modern well-managed mines.
Some people might wonder why. Galmoy has had such a wonderful impact on the local rivers, that in 2022 Inland Fisheries Ireland – the State agency responsible for management of freshwater fish – lodged an appeal against the reopening of the mine. And Lisheen? We’ll come back to that…
The mining policy document states that an ‘independent’ report has “assessed the social, environmental and economic effects” of the Lisheen and Galmoy mines. However, I couldn’t find any actual summary of the conclusions of this independent report in the document. So I looked at the report itself. Here’s my own summary of what it actually says…
Published in 2020, it confirms that there are some economic benefits from these mines. However, the reality is that the economic benefits of mining, for the local community, are in constant decline. In the early 20th century, a mine might plan to be around for a hundred years, helping to fund schools and other aspects of local community life. There’d be plenty of jobs too. Now, because of the impact of improved technology and automation, mining companies swoop in for 10-20 years, with larger machines and lots more chemicals, leading to more immediate and greater environmental devastation and waste.
No report can hide the fact that even the most “modern” mining is damaging to the environment. Even thirty years ago, a typical mining dumper truck would probably be carrying a 20 to 30-ton load. Now, trucks that carry a 300-ton load are common, with the largest monster trucks carrying all of 450-tons.
The waste (and there is a lot more of it) is far more damaging too, because a higher volume of chemicals is used.
To make matters worse, most of these chemicals have never been fully scientifically understood or tested. As materials scientist Josh Lepawsky, Professor of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, told me, “There are quite literally millions of different chemicals available for industrial use, but only on the order of thousands have ever been tested for their toxicity.”
Mining always uses huge quantities of water and, as a result of being flushed through multiple chemicals, that water will always become polluted.
Pietro Jarre is an eminent Italian Environmental Engineer, who spent thirty years working on some of the biggest mining clean-up projects in the world. He is clear about the risks where large-scale mining is concerned.
“Groundwater is gone,” he told me definitively. “It’s totally fucked up.”
That’s not exactly surprising. And yet, the authors of the independent report seem to think differently. “There were mixed results in terms of water quality,” they claim, before adding that it was “often not possible to isolate the direct effects of the mines on water quality from other influences… Despite the wealth of information, it was not always possible to determine whether the mines had effects on their local environments.”
This, sadly, reads like a rehash of the kind of obfuscation that mining companies and government authorities have hidden behind for years.
In Ireland, for example, if – close to a mining site – cattle or fish start dying, if children start getting sick, the onus is pushed onto the local community to prove ‘scientifically’ that the local mine is responsible.
In this way, mining companies wield science as a shield, and they are usually supported in this by a legal system, and successive governments, whose natural instinct is to protect the powerful.
“Prove it,” the scientists and lawyers say.
And we all know how extortionately costly it is to take a legal action of that kind in Ireland…
The independent report does mention a study, carried out in 2006, which identified worrying levels of “arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc” in the Drish River, into which Lisheen mine dumped huge quantities of waste water. The report mentions Lisheen’s “residual impacts” – stating, however, that “it is not possible to be conclusive about their ultimate environmental end-state or whether issues will arise in the future.”
It is not possible to be conclusive. So prove it…
Well, here’s something that doesn’t need proof.
Miners are cooks. They grind the rock until it’s as fine as flour. They then dump it into huge pots and stir in lots and lots of potentially dangerous chemicals, and bring it to the boil, until they can separate out the particular mineral they’re after, if it is there. In a typical mining process, between 90% and 99%-plus of the end-result is a toxic waste called tailings.
Thus, the inescapable reality is that mining, the world over, has a gargantuan waste problem, that equally inescapably, gets bigger every year. For example, in Limerick there broods a 75 million-ton dump of toxic red mud, the result of the processing of alumina – an exceptionally hard substance that is used in the manufacture of aluminium, among other products. Around the world, some four billion tons of red mud lurk. One of these red mud dumps collapsed in October 2010, at the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina plant in Ajka, Veszprém County, in western Hungary. All life-forms in the adjacent rivers were annihilated as a result.
It isn’t just that the dumps are getting bigger: they are getting bigger faster. Over the past forty years or so, ore quality has halved, a fact which is accepted within the mining industry as well as by the International Energy Agency, among other international bodies. What that means is that to get the same quantity of mineral today from mining, you will create twice as much waste as you did forty years ago.
The Truth About Toxic Tailings
To solve the waste problem, mining companies dig massive holes in the ground and dump the waste there, in what are called – in classical, cynical understatement – tailings ‘ponds’.
It’s said that the reason they were initially called ponds is that, were they called ‘dams’, more rigorous design standards would have had to be followed. That makes sense, given that these ‘ponds’ often rise well above ground level.
The Syncrude Mildred Lake Tailings Dyke in Alberta, Canada, is quite a pond. It’s about 18 km long – about the distance by road from the centre of Dublin to Howth – with a height of almost 90 metres. It is one of the largest structures ever ‘constructed’ by humans.
In 2015, one of these massive tailings dumps collapsed in Minas Gerais, in south-eastern Brazil. As the toxic debris hurtled 650 km to the Atlantic Ocean, it buried the Bento Rodrigues village completely and destroyed river life along its brutally destructive route.
On January 25th, 2019, in a similar environmental catastrophe, the Brumadinho tailings dump, just 150 km from Bento Rodrigues, collapsed, sending millions of tons of toxic mud in a wave 10 meters high, plunging at 120 km per hour down the countryside, killing hundreds of people and devasting wildlife and poisoning everything it touched.
There are multiple such tailings-dumps in the State of Minas Gerais (Portuguese for “General Mines”), that are best described as ticking time bombs, at imminent risk of collapse. The Brumadinho dump had passed all the safety checks just before it wreaked savage – and immeasurable – damage. Minas means mining, and in Minas, the mines have always come before the citizens and the environment.
Nobody knows how many tailings dumps there are in the world, but – having done the research – I estimate that between 1920 and 2020, humans created about three trillion tons of tailings waste. That’s the equivalent of 20 Mt. Everests.
And the most frightening thing is that we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Far from protecting us, it appears that what is being called our “green” transition will send mining into hyperdrive. By 2050, we’ll be creating a Mt. Everest of waste every year. Between 2020 and 2120 (if we survive that long), we’ll have created a further 59 trillion tons – that’s 370 Mt. Everests – of mining waste.
All of these tailings dumps will remain toxic for thousands of years. All are ultimately, inevitably, abandoned. And all will finally collapse, whether in 10 or 20 or 200 years.
But this is no far-off-in-the-future fear.
Jan Morrill, a tailings dump expert with the US environmental advocacy group Earthworks, said she counted seven failures and collapses in a two-month period in 2022 alone. This is modern mining. So, when the independent report on Lisheen and Galmoy mines talks about “residual impacts,” think of tailings dumps. The policy-makers tell us that everything is in order. Lisheen has a plan… until 2050.
Let’s think of a mine as having a 1,000-year life. The first 20 years are given to prospecting. The next twenty years to mining the mineral. Then, the next 960 years should be given over to managing the waste.
“With mining,” environmental engineer Pietro Jarre pointed out to me, “costs are public and profits are private.” It’s the same old story: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest. Much of the prospecting costs are publicly-funded. Most of the profits from the actual mining will be private. And the big, always unspoken one: the 960 years of maintenance of the toxic dump, will almost exclusively fall to the public, the ordinary taxpayer, to cover. Jane and Joe Soap will be expected to clean up the mess.
Why has this not been more widely discussed?
Because up until the rising “green” mining frenzy, these mines and dumps were hidden away in what were thought of as ‘poor’, frequently isolated, areas.
To think of these areas as ‘poor’ is, of course, a prejudice. They are often among the most environmentally vital places on Earth. They can be rich in culture and tradition. Their eco systems often do critical work in moderating everything from global warming to water quality. The Amazon basin is a prime mining area.
Even in Ireland, Tara Mines are just 20 kilometres from Newgrange Stone Age passage tomb and 17 kilometres from the historic Hill of Tara. The Boyne Valley Greenway runs along the perimeter. The “Tailings Storage Facility” is 8 kilometres away in Randalstown, close to the Blackwater River, which flows into the River Boyne just east of Navan.
In the past, when remote areas were devastated by the inevitable mining disasters, we hardly noticed. Word travelled slowly, if at all. The Irish mining policy document – which mentions the word “tailings” just three times and which never uses the word “toxic” – states that the “State is involved in the rehabilitation of legacy mines at Silvermines, Co. Tipperary and Avoca, Co. Wicklow.” Silvermines has a romantic sound to it. Here’s an excerpt from a 1985 article in Magill magazine about what it was like to live beside the Silvermines tailings dump.
“A 40-foot high, 147-acre plateau of mining waste is lying in a valley near Nenagh, Co Tipperary. When the wind rises, clouds of poisonous dust blow from the plateau onto neighbouring land causing human illness and the death of animals. The problem is getting worse.
“On Sunday February 10 this year, the tailings pond started to blow again. Thick lead-filled dust blew like a black fog for six miles into the countryside near Nenagh, County Tipperary. Geraldine Hogan and her family were living a few hundred yards from it.
“By Tuesday, Geraldine, who was seven months pregnant, was spitting up blood. Her doctor came out to see her. The house was a health hazard, said Dr Maureen Carmody. By Thursday Geraldine was in Nenagh Hospital. On Friday her husband John evacuated the rest of the family – Niamh (2), and Edel (5). Soon afterwards, John’s mother moved out of her house which was next door to them.”
The mine had closed three years previously, in 1982. A 1999 EPA report stated that the tailings dump “posed a perpetual risk to human health and the environment.” The Irish Times wrote, in 2006, about how no real action had been taken to address the toxic waste, and about how there was little or no accountability from the mining companies or the State.
Almost forty years after the mine was closed, a 2021 study found riverbed sediments containing lead concentrations six times higher than acceptable limits. Only 920 years to go before Silvermines is safe.
Another abandoned mine that the State was ‘caring’ for was located in Avoca. In 2006, almost 25 years after the mine was closed, the Environmental Protection Agency said that the Avoca River was the most severely polluted river in Ireland. A 2019 study found dissolved metal concentrations of aluminium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, nickel and zinc at elevated levels. “Sulphate levels also greatly exceeded the criteria for drinking water in six of the seven monitoring wells,” the report stated.
Despite these alarming results, the twice-yearly monitoring was abruptly stopped in 2019.
Forty Shades of Greenwashing
The Irish mining policy document uses every green buzzword ad nauseum. Green is mentioned 32 times. Sustainable and sustainability are mentioned more than 100 times. The words ‘environmental’ and ‘environment’ are used over 150 times, which accounts for almost 1% of the words used in the 22,000-word document. I mean, it even tries to promote the idea of mining tourism!
Circularity is mentioned 40 times. There is a section on the Circular Economy.
There could be nothing further from the Circular Economy than mining. The very ethos of the Circular Economy is to try and get us to reduce mining.
Because of the mining frenzy that started in the 1970s, the world has become less circular every year. In 2020, world material use was 90.9% mining-driven and linear. In 2023, it’s expected to be 92.8% linear. Only 7% of the materials that go into our products gets reused. Nothing could be less sustainable than mining. If mining is sustainable, then Donald Trump is a lovely man who is always unerringly truthful.
Mining is about the extraction of a finite, non-renewable resource. On an annual basis, we are currently using about 1.75 times more resources than the Earth can sustain. If our so-called ‘green’ mining transition occurs, we will be using 2.5 times more. A ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ policy promoting a Circular Economy is like a tobacco company promoting a gym where everyone who signs up gets free cigarettes.
In a world where we face multiple environmental crises that have been caused by over-consumption and over-mining, the intention to double the amount of mining over the next 30-50 years requires at least forty shades of greenwashing. We’re being told that mining is about life-saving medical equipment, and renewable energy devices. And smartphones.
Each and every one of these devices uses seventy or more materials, 14,000 litres of water, and up to 90 kg of toxic waste – and causes 60 kg of CO2 – to manufacture what is just 130 grammes of branded style. 15,000 billion smartphones have been made since 2007, each one lasting a couple of years. And recycling? Are you joking! The modern tech industry has deliberately set out to design products that are almost impossible to repair or recycle.
That’s planned obsolescence. Why? Profit maximization.
At best, about 15% of phones are recycled. Of that 15%, you’re lucky if you get back 30% of reusable materials. So, at 5%, the Circular Economy for smartphones is even lower than the already atrocious rate for material re-use. And every year, it gets worse. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. In 2022, we could build a Great Wall of China with the e-waste produced. By 2035, we’ll be able to build two Great Walls of China a year with e-waste. In a typical dump, e-waste will represent at least 70% of toxicity.
Let’s be honest. There is no such thing as the “green” transition, no such thing as “green” technology, no such thing as “clean” energy, no such thing as “renewable” energy. We’re talking about levels of dirtiness and pollution, from the absolutely filthy coal to the less dirty solar and wind. They all pollute.
“The latest onshore wind turbines require nearly 120,000 tons of steel, 5,000 tons of nickel, 1,500 tons of copper, and nearly 300 tons of rare earth elements per GW of installed capacity,” Adrien Concordel, of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research explained in Illuminen, in 2022. Not even remotely enough has been done about the proper recycling of solar panels and wind turbines. You see, we don’t have an energy production problem. We have an energy consumption problem. Our accelerating demand for energy is growing at such a pace that whatever technology we use, the Earth has no chance of keeping up with our ravenous demands.
Electric vehicles have massive manufacturing mineral demands, up to six times greater than traditional vehicles. Studies show that a large electric vehicle can in fact produce more total damage to the environment than a small petrol car. Size matters and the quantity of mining matters greatly, not just to the climate but to biodiversity, water and soil.
Mining is a key driver of the biodiversity crisis. Since 1970, there has been an astonishing 70% decline in biodiversity, the greatest decline in human history. There is an existential issue here. Since 1970, humans stopped being consumers of the Earth and started being devourers. We have now entered the period of The Great Devouring.
Of all the CO2 that human activity has produced, we caused 25% of it up to 1970. Modern humans are around for about 200,000 years. So, it took us 200,000 years to cause 25% of our total CO2 damage. In just 50 years, we caused the other 75%. It’s like humans were driving around in first gear until 1970, and then jumped to sixth gear and put the foot down as hard as we possibly could.
What our policy-makers and politicians are proposing is that we find a tenth gear of mining and mineral extraction. The only way to describe this is the Growth Death Cult. Humans are zombie members of the cult of growth.
It is imperative that we escape it. The first step is to stop mining for useless materials like gold...
Read Part Two of this special report in next issue of Hot Press – out in May.
Gerry McGovern began his career as a writer with Hot Press. Subsequently specialising in digital communications, he was named by the Irish Times as one of the five visionaries who have had a major impact on the development of the Web. He created his Top Tasks discipline as a way of approaching the vital challenge of reducing content, clearing menus and achieving better search results. To date, Gerry has written eight books. His latest is titled World Wide Waste: How digital is killing the planet and what to do about it.