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By Dr Carlos A. Seara * and Roberto Luna **
How and with what does open pit mining pollute?
Clearly and bluntly speaking, open pit mining is a extremely poisonous and polluting activity, why disperses dust, fugitive dust, or particulate matter into the air, raised to the atmosphere on the occasion of the explosions with which mountains are blown up and thus by fragmenting them, their transport is facilitated in the mines to the respective crushing plants where the amount of particulate released is also very important.
It is a consequence of extractive activity that miners cannot and will never be able to control or manage. Winds or air currents carry this dust over great distances, depositing it over large regions, including cities and towns. This is in addition to other catastrophic results of open-pit mega-mining, especially the destruction and contamination of both surface and underground water sources and in the mountains, the impact on glacial and periglacial environments, as well as soil contamination.
What does that dust contain?
The dust raised in the mines It is made up of particles that contain dozens of chemical elements (See Periodic Table of Elements). The Geomedicine tells us that although some of them are essential for life on the Planet (Iron, Calcium, Chlorine, Magnesium, Iodine, Selenium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Sulfur, etc.), others are poisonous and toxic (Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury) and finally the fearsome radioactive (Uranium, Thorium and Cesium).
What are and where do chemical elements originate?
According to geology, (and roughly), the chemical elements present in rocks are derived from magma, which is a very hot and viscous molten mass, which is located below the Earth's Crust at variable depths (40 to 60 km, below the continents and 8 to 10 km, below the ocean floor), in what would be the outer mantle of the Planet.
It is composed of an undifferentiated mixture of the 92 Natural chemical elements (Periodic Table), solid, liquid and gaseous (metallic and non-metallic). That magma, due to the collision of tectonic plates, It rose and rises for millions of years to the surface in the form of lava, cooling and forming the volcanic rocks that house areas of mineral enrichment in their interior, which later give rise to to certain types of deposits or mines (Eg La Alumbrera and Agua Rica mines in Catamarca).
Chemical elements are also concentrated in the veins or seams rocks originated by magma that filled fissures in the interior of the crust, and that in some cases emerged due to erosion. All this in an extremely complex physical-chemical process (eg San Jorge mine in Mendoza).
The magmas that give rise to mineral deposits are always different, even within the same geological region, which explains the diversity and quantity of metals that each mine contains. An example is the Farallón Negro Mining Volcanic Complex, in Catamarca, with numerous mines with high value metal ores such as Gold, Silver, Copper and variable percentages, from the highest grade to the scarcest (at trace level). It is noteworthy that in this Complex, as a whole, the Segemar (Argentine Mining Geological Service) accounted for around 60 chemical elements in a 2008 expert report, with high grade of Uranium, Thorium, Cesium and Arsenic.
In summary, The particles that make up the dust that pollutes the air, have the same chemical composition as the rocks from the mines, ground with explosives and crushed in the plant, and therefore similar to the magma that gave rise to them..
How was the presence of the chemical elements verified in the mines?
In Argentina, the Ministry of Mining of the Nation carried out an intensive Mining Exploration program from 1995 to locate mining deposits, using two procedures or methods, Aerial Geophysics and Geochemistry. These scientific studies contain irrefutable proof of what we claim.
The Aerial Geophysics studies were carried out with airplanes and helicopters equipped with special technology, covering wide regions of the country, which made possible the exact location of mining deposits, based on the surface detection of the gamma radiation emitted by contained Uranium and Thorium. in the rocks of those deposits. The most intense radioactivity indicates the presence of areas or terrains with a greater amount of metals (mineralization), those that coincide with volcanic zones, outcropping seams or concentrations of another origin such as sedimentary places, contact fringes for metamorphic deposits, etc.
With this technique, hundreds of new deposits were located throughout the national territory, the existence of which was not known or had not been considered in the light of new technologies.
Thus we have the first proof of the existence of Uranium and Thorium in the rock of the deposits; These are developed by blowing up mountains with explosives, which produces a very high emission of dust. This fact is verifiable in the Air Geophysical Charts drawn up in all regions with mining deposits, published in recent years by Segemar.
The Geochemical prospecting It consists of taking soil and sediment samples from streams, in areas where previous geological or aerial geophysical studies indicated the existence of “high mineralization”, to submit them to laboratory analysis with special techniques.
The purpose is to know the chemical elements (Periodic Table) contained in each sample, their quantity and the probable metalliferous concentrations in the depths and surroundings.
The Segemar has published detailed and revealing Geochemical Charts of the Cordilleran Region and Patagonia, with the concentrations of up to 48 pre-set chemical elements.
How are ecosystems polluted or poisoned?
The dust resulting from dynamiting the mountains and processing the rocks on the ground is composed of invisible particles, extremely light, even though they are radioactive chemical elements, which have a greater mass or "atomic weight" and those commonly known as "heavy metals". For this reason they are easily blown by the winds towards populated areas in the valleys and surrounding regions, and can reach distances of hundreds of kilometers. Let us not forget that in the disasters of the Chernobyl nuclear plants (Ukraine-1986), and Fukushima (Japan-2011), fugitive radioactive elements such as Uranium and Cesium were detected thousands of kilometers away (New York and Madrid).
Another crucial aspect to take into account when measuring risks is the direction of the prevailing winds, which carry the rock dust with all its minerals, to a greater extent towards certain populations.
This particulate material or dust is deposited on soils and in water courses. There are no environments that can escape the polluting action of open-pit mining. In addition to people, mining poison also damages fauna, flora and productive activities such as agriculture and livestock. The damage reaches the trophic and food chains, thus increasing health risks.
How is the damage to human health produced?
When starting an open pit mining operation, environmental damages are immediate, profound and lasting. Local populations are not sufficiently informed about the risks of mining activity, and so they drink “poisoned” water and breathe polluted air. In addition, they consume food contaminated by the toxic metals present in water and soil.
It must be emphasized that contamination or mining poison is not biological in nature, that is, it does not come from microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, etc. It is chemical in nature on the one hand and radioactive on the other., which creates a situation of maximum threat to public health.
Why do we talk about Uranium, Thorium and Cesium?
We reiterate that the geochemical and geophysical scientific studies carried out by Segemar have shown that all deposits, without exception, always contain dozens of chemical elements in varying proportions, including radioactive Uranium, Thorium and Cesium, which emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation (See Chernobyl and Fukushima) and toxics such as Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, etc.
The deposits are identified by the predominant metal (s). The AlumbreraFor example, it is known as a Gold and Copper Mine, but a lot of Silver and Molybdenum is also extracted and unexpectedly, it contains Uranium and Thorium in "high grade", among other pollutants or toxins (Data from an official Segemar report).
Turn one uranium mine, like Río Colorado in Tinogasta, has traces of Gold, Copper, Silver, etc.
Uranium and its radioactive "children", As the Radon gas, constitute a serious threat to the health of the populations settled in regions near mining operations, since it has a high carcinogenic action, because its isotopes destroy or alter DNA and with it the behavior of cells. (See Ionizing Radiations)
What about the health of employees and operators who work in the mines?
Geologists and managers of mining companies know perfectly the lethal effect of dust particles that lift explosions and movements in the processing plant (transport, crushing, grinding, etc.). To prevent the emergence of serious illnesses among staff and not suffer "productivity", they carry out Intensive and permanent irrigation with tanker trucks on the roads inside and outside the crater and the facilities areas, to prevent dust from flying and being vacuumed by those who work there, among other preventive measures. This activity also demands large amounts of water.
Is it true, as some say, that there is no need to worry about toxic metals since they have always been in ecosystems and have not caused problems?
The radioactive and toxic metals they are distributed in the earth's crust in minimal quantity and with a natural decantation process, which makes them compatible with life. But they become polluting and poisonous when your concentration and accumulation in ecosystems due to emissions of Poisonous dust from open pit mining, especially.
The concentrated effect of large amounts of toxic metals that suddenly appear from mining in a region, wreak havoc on the ecosystem and on human health.
What is the danger of cyanide?
Dust or particulate matter is the main poison produced by open pit mining, but not the only one. Acidic rock drainage and cyanide also pose specific threats to the environment.
However, the discussion about the dangerousness of cyanide has been promoted and used by miners to divert society's attention from the main polluting mining agent; with this they have fostered a sterile discussion that has served their objectives of misinforming society.
What regions or countries does this destructive activity affect?
It is obvious that destructive impacts of open pit mining have a general scope, where there are farms. Therefore, the Destruction of water sources, the poisoning of the air, water and soils, and the unbridled looting of natural resources, spread throughout several countries in Latin America and other Continents. who are victims of the greed of transnational mega-mining.
In Argentina, the paradigmatic case is Andalgalá (Catamarca), where they are concentrated all destructive impacts of mega-mining, starting with pollution or environmental poisoning and the collapse in the health of its population.
Is a change in technology possible to extract the mineral scattered in the rock?
No, it is not possible because current technology offers no other options outside of open-pit mining, which involves the absolute destruction with explosives of mountains, landscapes and ecosystems. In consecuense this extractive system is absolutely unviable.
Can the emission of dust be reduced or eliminated in the demolition of hills, mountains and mountains?
In practice it is impossible to reduce the dust cloud with mineral included that explosives raise when exploding. The hasty extraction of metals requires demolish the mountains, crushing and pulverizing rocks urgently, which is achieved with extremely high explosive charges, that they will inevitably push large amounts of toxic dust into the atmosphere. Lowering dust emissions would be achieved using little dynamite but that would mean lowering “productivity” and “big mining” is not interested.
Why is it that what refers to mining contamination has little diffusion in the general public?
Open-pit mega-mining (or irrational extractivism) he is so brutal in his procedures which can only be developed if the country and the society where it is embedded, prior to or during exploitation, are subjected to an extraordinary disinformation campaign to hide or undermine its harmful methods and destructive impacts. The perversion of the “mining corporation” resides in that it knows the real damage it causes and to hide it has mounted a gigantic network to silence most of the press with bribes.
The little technical information that transcends is incomplete, tendentious and in many cases false. For example, when miners refer to the "material" that a deposit has, they never reveal the Geochemistry (detail and proportion of chemical elements) and invariably speak of Rocks (set of minerals), thereby hiding key data from public opinion.
So what is the solution?
There is only one. Total resistance to these killer exploits, to force the governments to, through the appropriate institutional channels, promote the sanction of the Laws of absolute prohibition in the Argentine Territory of open-pit mining.
Further, the Argentine Society will have to consider and analyze in the future, and given the ferocity of the attack launched by mega-mining, the institutional, professional or technical responsibilities and finally the academic ones of the local representatives that generated this situation in our country.
• Transnational mining and intervention devices in culture, Antonelli M. (2009). - Buenos Aires.
• Latin America: Extractivism, ecological frontiers and geopolitics of resources- Delgado Romas G.C. (2012), Quito, Ecuador.
• Testimony: New colonialism in South America and Africa, Rodríguez Pardo J. (2012) - Buenos Aires.
• Volume "Earth Sciences" - Tarbuck-Lutgens - 8th Ed. (2011) - Madrid.
• Charts of Aerial Geophysics - Magnetometry and Gamma Ray Spectrometry - Uranium / Thorium Concentrations, published by SEGEMAR (Leaves Belén, Esquel, Tres Cerros and others).
• Geochemical charts published by SEGEMAR (Belén, Villa Unión, Malimán and others).
• Special scientific and technical studies on Geology, Geochemistry and Geophysics, carried out and published by professionals from the Ministry of Mining of the Nation and National Universities.
• Articles and reports on Geology and related topics, published in the Revista de la Asociación GeológicaArgentina.
• Internet sites specialized in disciplines related to open pit mining.