Daily BulletinDaily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Susan Lawrence, Professor, Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

This is an edited extract from SLUDGE: disaster on Victoria’s goldmines.

Bento Rodrigues, Brazil, 6 November 2015

Wet, orange mud covers everything: streets, houses, cars, animals, trees, fields. The violent force of a torrent of mud has overturned cars and left them hovering on top of buildings. It has torn the roofs off houses and pushed over their walls.

The view of the town from helicopters flying above reveals a desolate landscape: sludge-caked animals struggle to free themselves, and rescue teams search desperately for survivors. Mud dyes the river orange for hundreds of kilometres downstream, and two weeks later it will flow out into the Atlantic in an expanding orange stain.

Read more: Dam collapse at Brazilian mine exposes grave safety problems

This devastation is the result of the catastrophic failure of a tailings dam: a vast settling pond built to store the muddy waste from Samarco’s Germano iron ore mine. Late one afternoon in November 2015 the dam wall gave way. The collapse released a flood of polluted, sediment-laden water that raced down the valley below, destroying and burying everything in its path and leaving 21 people dead. The valley will never be the same.

Just three years later another tailings dam failed in the same part of Brazil, with more tragic human consequences.

Gold rush-era rules to stop mining pollution are still in use – but they’re failing Torrents of mud swept Brumadinho in 2019, after a mine tailings dam broke. EPA/Antonio Lacerda

On January 29, 2019, as mine workers were sitting down to lunch in the company cafeteria, one of the dams gave way at the Córrego do Feijão iron mine near Brumadinho. Nearly 12 million cubic metres of polluted mud rushed down the Rio Paraopeba River, submerging the mine’s administration area and parts of nearby communities.

More than 300 people were killed, including the workers eating their lunch and two holidaymakers from Sydney. A third of the bodies still have not been recovered from the sludge.

Ironically, the owners of the mines – including Australia’s BHP – built these tailings dams to protect the environment. Without them, waste would have poured into the river every day the mines operated. The sludge would have flowed everywhere, oozing through streets and under doors, creeping up walls and between trees, covering gardens and crops.

Read more: How BHP and Vale react next to Brazilian dam failure will be critical

It would still have turned the ocean orange – it just would have taken longer and occurred more gradually, over years rather than hours, and no one would have drowned.

Victoria, Australia, 19th century

In the nineteenth century Victoria was the centre of a global resources boom, with the surging economy and environmental consequences to match. Gold from the mines built Marvellous Melbourne, while mud oozed from the goldfields to choke numerous rivers across Victoria. In those days tailings dams were unheard of.

Read more: How gold rushes helped make the modern world

When BHP was formed as Broken Hill Proprietary in 1885 it was common practice to just let the waste flow where it flowed, and no one thought differently. Tailings covered vast areas of land in mining regions all over the world, including Australia.

Gold rush-era rules to stop mining pollution are still in use – but they’re failing Black Hill, Ballarat. State Library of Victoria

Today, environmental protection laws in developed countries require mines to store their waste water on site. Modern tailings dams like the one that failed in Brazil are intended to keep mining waste out of rivers. Mining companies build ponds next to their processing plants and fill them with all the water that has been used to process the ores.

These dams contain millions of cubic metres of highly toxic liquid and slurry. Controlling waste at the source is considered modern industrial and environmental best practice, and dams hold thousands of megalitres of polluted water, keeping them out of waterways.

Read more: Gold Rush Victoria was as wasteful as we are today

Dams can work well for years, but sometimes, as at the Germano iron ore mine, they give way and the accumulated toxic waste of many years is released in one catastrophic event.

Gold rush-era rules to stop mining pollution are still in use – but they’re failing Leigh River filled with sludge, south of Ballarat, in 1909. Report of the Sludge Abatement Board for 1909

Tailings dams and other environmental protection measures are a recent set of developments. In Australia they have their origins in the long history of the gold rush. Modern laws regulating the resources industry are the result of generations of struggle against the mining waste that once filled river valleys. People had a name for these waves of sand, clay and gravel that choked the rivers and blanketed the fields. They called it “sludge”, and they wanted to be rid of it.

Read more: Emancipated wenches in gaudy jewellery: the liberating bling of the goldfields

Victorian communities were some of the first in the world to successfully challenge industrial pollution.

Understanding how they succeeded and why it took so long provides us with vital insight into contemporary struggles to balance mining interests with environmental values.

SLUDGE: disaster on Victoria’s goldmines is published by La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc. The book will launch in Melbourne on August 15 at Readings, Carlton. Details here.

Authors: Susan Lawrence, Professor, Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

Read more http://theconversation.com/gold-rush-era-rules-to-stop-mining-pollution-are-still-in-use-but-theyre-failing-120887

School is important, and so is staying safe from coronavirus. Here are some tips for returning seniors

arrow_forward

Can Australian businesses force customers to wear a mask? Here's what the law says

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Scott Morrison Interview with Ray Hadley, 2GB

RAY HADLEY: Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, supposed to be on holidays. He's not. He's online. Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: G’day Ray. Certainly staying very close to every...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison Covid 19 update

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, everyone. Today I’m joined by Professor Paul Murphy - sorry, Professor Paul Kelly. I’ve got Brendan Murphy still on the brain. You are not far from us, Brendan. B...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

FORDHAM: Thank you very much for talking to us. I know it's a difficult day for all of those Qantas workers. Look, they want to know in the short term, are you going to extend JobKeeper?   PRI...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

What Are Your Basic Rights as an Employee and a Job Candidate?

There is no denying that we are living in very difficult times where finding stable employment is not that easy. However, no matter how harsh the circumstances are, people should not withstand m...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Double the interest in eCommerce spaces from businesses after COVID-19 lockdown

Recent lockdown restrictions have emphasised the necessity of an eCommerce function in future-proofing retail businesses. Sydney-based co-working space, Workit Spaces, has seen double the amoun...

Steve Fletcher, National WHSQ Manager at Drake International - avatar Steve Fletcher, National WHSQ Manager at Drake International

Tips for Setting Up an E-Commerce Website

If you are fed up with the 9-5 daily grind and would like to make a living selling products online, setting up an e-commerce website might just be the answer. Many Australians have already freed t...

News Company - avatar News Company



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion