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Issue #1702      September 16, 2015

Culture & Life

Gold tailings and coal divestment

What do you do with a gold mine after you have extracted all the gold? Or a silver mine? Or a lead mine? Or a copper mine? This question is currently exercising the minds of environmental activists in the USA, following the catastrophic failure of that country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up the Gold King, Red and Bonita mines in Colorado. The EPA managed to breach an old tailings dam and release an estimated three million gallons of mine waste (lead, arsenic and copper) into Colorado’s Animas River. The breach sent a yellow-orange, toxic mess that stretched for 100 miles through a spectacularly beautiful area of Colorado.

Water flows into pits of mine wastewater below the Gold King Mine. (Photo: Brent Lewis)

However, it could have been even worse. As the British Guardian reported: “One expert called the mines north of Durango near Silverton and the abandoned mining town of Gladstone ‘ticking time bombs’. Another expressed relief that the Gold King spill was not larger – if a slurry of mine waste known as tailings had spilled from the area, he said, there could have been ‘100 times the volume’ of waste.”

What worries US environmentalists is that there are around half a million abandoned hard-rock mines around the country, most of them in only 12 states. As Judy Molland notes, “they are the result of the early rush to dig gold and minerals, combined with decades of lax regulations”.

Mining companies – like other corporations – are always greedy for profits. Once they have extracted all the profitable ore, they have little interest in spending any of their profits on cleaning up the toxic mess that is left behind. In the heartland of capitalism, compliant governments – at state and federal levels – have been easily persuaded to let them get away with it.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the US federal government began cracking down on air and water pollution. Even then, as Popular Science notes, “In 1996, Sunnyside [mining company] was permitted to shut down its treatment plant – an effective but expensive way to stop pollution from mine discharges – and switch to the less costly method of simply plugging the mine works with concrete.”

In 1997, the US Congress adopted a series of policies to reclaim “abandoned mine lands” under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency, has so far identified 48,100 abandoned sites within its jurisdiction. Sounds a lot, but it leaves around 80 percent of abandoned mine sites still unidentified and needing further analysis or environmental cleanup efforts.

In Judy Molland’s words, “The massive unleashing of pollution from an old, inactive gold mine high in the San Juan Mountains of south-western Colorado is a heartbreaking reminder of how past actions and the failure to deal with them can threaten our wildlife, landscapes and human health for generations.

“We should all take a lesson about conservation from this ugly spill, and remember that it is not acceptable to destroy the land and leave these problems for future generations to fix.”

However, to paraphrase Marx, in pursuit of profits, capitalists don’t really give a toss about destruction of the land or the difficulties that may be faced by future generations.

Another type of mining is also causing a lot of worry and concern for the environment: coal mining. The burning of fossil fuels like coal is recognised (except by Tony Abbott) as a prime contributor to global warming. So serious is this issue that a world-wide movement has sprung up calling for governments and industry to stop using these fuels that threaten the future of life on Earth. It’s called the Divestment Campaign.

Cole Mellino of Ecowatch notes that “To date, 397 institutions have at least partially divested from fossil fuels. … Students at Swarthmore, Yale, Harvard and University of Washington among many others demanded their institutions put their money where their mouth is and stop investing ‘in an industry that is actively destabilising the future that our education is meant to prepare us for’, as one student at Swarthmore put it.”

One notable case came from the Norwegian Parliament, which took the unprecedented step of mandating that its sovereign wealth fund (the richest in the world) divest from coal burning and coal-producing companies.

Similarly, California’s state legislature passed a bill that requires the state’s two largest pension plans – California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System – to divest their holdings from thermal coal.

“The measure to divest these two pension funds – the largest public pension funds in the US – is part of a legislative push in California to address climate change,” says Mellino. Bill McKibben, co-founder of environment organisation 350.org, commented: “That California – Earth’s eighth biggest economy – will begin to pull its money out of fossil fuel stocks is a sign about what technologies are the future, and which are the dirty past.”

Closer to home, Newcastle City Council has voted to divest its $270 million investment portfolio from fossil fuels, including coal. “The importance of this decision cannot be glossed over,” says 350.org. “It is outstanding leadership for a city that is neck-deep in fossil fuels to make the call that it’s time to get out of them. Obviously this divestment decision won’t stop the coal port from continuing on at this point, but it sets the direction for the city going forward.” Newcastle is the world’s biggest coal port.

Prime Minister (now former) Tony Abbott predictably came out against the decision. But Newcastle city councillor Declan Clausen justified the decision: “There are an increasing group of start-ups in Newcastle that are looking at a clean-tech future, we are embracing those opportunities. The coal downturn has particularly affected the Hunter Valley. Clean techs are going to be a significant employer moving forward. Council is being on the front foot about that.”

Unlike Tony Abbott.

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