Modern large-scale mining is very destructive to the natural ecosystems and often disruptive to hosting communities.
It is estimated by the United Nations International Resource Panel that, “90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by resource extraction and processing.” And the Panel notes that, “annually, the extraction of metals and minerals has risen significantly, from 11.6 billion tons in 1970 to 53.1 billion tons in 2017, accounting for 20 percent of climate impacts.”
The mining sector is also linked to the highest number of attacks to human rights defenders.
In 2019, about 25 percent of the attacks on human rights defenders documented by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre were related to mining. Global Witness documented 367 killings of land and environmental defenders related to mining projects, where Global Witness identified the root cause is often ‘the imposition of damaging projects on communities without their free, prior and informed consent.’
Community consent essential
It is essential therefore that the citing of mining operations be done carefully, judiciously, and in a manner that allows for the full range of consequences of the proposed mine to be fully explored and addressed.
Our outdated 1872 federal mining law has facilitated expedited mine permitting for over 150 years. We only need to look at the backlog of Superfund sites to see the fallout of the existing policy on mine permitting.
A 2004 EPA Inspector General report identified 156 hard-rock mining sites in the U.S. — 40 percent of which were on the National Priorities List — that could cost as much as $24 billion to clean up. And, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that approximately 10,000 miles of rivers and streams may have been contaminated by acid mine drainage.
A toxic legacy
Here in Nevada we have operating mine sites that are expected to produce toxic acid drainage for hundreds of years and were permitted to open and expand knowing this problem is likely to occur. At Thacker Pass, the mine is expected to be a source of groundwater contamination for at least 300 years.
Many US laws have been passed to protect our environment and increase transparency and public engagement since 1872, particularly the series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Most prominent was the National Environmental Policy Act that lays out a measured process for public engagement and assessment of environmental effects of a project such as a mine.
These laws are in place for a reason and a sincere effort must be made to adhere to the principles of these regulations.
No rush to judgment
Never is there a time to fast-track or “expedite” mine permitting even for lithium and other “energy transition” metals. If anything, we should be even more careful, because each mine further erodes the ability of the planet to regulate climate. Expediting is a step backward, which will accept incompletely-analyzed mine plans that unnecessarily allow environmental damage and run over concerns of the directly affected communities.
We only need to look at the permitting process for the proposed Thacker Pass Lithium mine that has so far triggered two lawsuits and highly disgruntled front-line communities.
Good permitting means that the consequences of a proposed mine are fully explored and well communicated to the general public with special attention to nearby (hosting) communities. All the consequences of the Thacker Pass project are still not known to the best ability of current analysis, and many known negative effects are not being addressed adequately. The environmental impact statement process should make clear whether a mine is allowable.
It is neither good for Nevadans, nor for tackling climate change, for regulators to rush to permit a mine, as was done in the case of the Thacker Pass project. Running over community concerns and ignoring significant damage to the environment is how we got into the climate situation that we are in now.
Losing public trust
The energy transition isn’t just technological; what matters is how we develop and deploy those technologies. Mining inherently disproportionately affects certain communities and their environment. The transition process needs to be sensitive to this reality.
For those who believe that mining proposals for lithium and any other mineral should be expedited, tell the government to follow the law and the mining companies to be truly transparent.
Sidestepping and loose compliance with regulations and withholding information about the mine plan will certainly delay permitting due to inevitable litigation and lack of community trust. That’s exactly what happened with the Thacker Pass proposed lithium mine permitting process.
John Hadder is the director of Great Basin Resource Watch. A guest editorial in support of fast-tracking approvals for lithium mines previously appeared in the Reno News & Review.