Kamloops should weigh impact of gold mine on environment

Posted by Dr. Moench and Cherise Udell on April 2nd, 2013 5:37am

The following op-ed piece was written by Dr. Moench and Cherise Udell, and was printed in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, http://www.vancouversun.com/business/bc2035/Kamloops+should+weigh+impact+gold+mine+environment/8166648/story.html 

Interestingly, it has yet to be printed in either of our local Kamloops newspapers.

We live in Salt Lake City, home of the world’s deepest open pit mine. Nowhere else in the world is there the juxtaposition of a mine as large as the Utah Rio Tinto copper mine right next door to a large city — 1.5 million people. Facing a proposal for a similar mine, residents of Kamloops asked us to visit their city and share our perspective on what it’s like to be next door neighbors to an enormous mine.

Our “Pit” was started in 1906 and is now a kilometre deep and four kilometres wide. It can be seen from space. The waste rock piles are 366 metres high, completely dominating our western vista. The tailings piles now cover another 9,000 acres. After 100 years of operation, the mine has devoured one fourth of a whole mountain range, taken all the water from the 42-kilometre long eastern half of the Oquirrh Mountains and displaced 10,000 people.

Annually the mine produces 318 million kilograms of heavy metal laden toxic waste. That waste has created the largest mining related contaminated groundwater plume in the world. Because of the mine, our federal agencies rank Utah as the second-most toxic state in the U.S., and our county, Salt Lake County, as the second-most toxic county in the U.S. Primarily because of Rio Tinto, the iconic business magazine Forbes, ranks Salt Lake City the ninth most toxic city in the U.S. The mine is responsible for about one-third of greater Salt Lake’s air pollution which can sometimes can be the worst in the U.S. That pollution causes the premature deaths of 1,000 to 2,000 Utah residents every year and some of those deaths can be directly attributed to the mining related pollution.

The long history of the mine is one of repeated expansions. Two years ago, Rio Tinto applied to once again expand the mine and pollute more. The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the Utah Moms for Clean Air joined other groups that finally said, “Enough,” and sued to stop the expansion. Our city has already paid too high a price.

Dust pollution and diesel exhaust from heavy equipment cause serious health consequences: increased rates of deaths, strokes, heart attacks, lung diseases, neurological diseases, brain damage, cancer, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. But mine dust is also contaminated with a basketful of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium which further increase the toxicity of the particles, especially in causing cancer and brain damage. There is evidence that the Ajax mine site also contains uranium and chromium which can be transformed into hexavalent chromium (the “Erin Brokovich toxin”) during blasting. There is no safe level of any of these toxic elements, yet they will be found in the mine dust that will constantly blanket your community.

Visiting the proposed mine site last week, we were stunned at what we saw. The mine would be much closer to Kamloops than the Rio Tinto mine is to Salt Lake City. It is safe to say that the impacts of the Ajax mine on the local population will undoubtedly be even more profound. Studies have documented what is very intuitive, that heavy metal contaminated dust from mines is found at higher concentrations the closer one gets to a mine.

Like Ajax proponents, Rio Tinto always boasts about the number of mining jobs they provide. An easy counter argument is: if a Kamloops crime spree increases the number of police and prison guard jobs, is that a net positive for the community? If an ebola virus epidemic increased jobs for health care providers and morticians, can that be counted an economic asset?

By multiple different metrics, the public health and quality of life issues from the air and water pollution, the property devaluation, suppression of cleaner industry, and environmental damage makes the Rio Tinto mine an overall community economic liability.

Expectation that the mine’s ecological damage can be acceptably mitigated or reclamated is wishful thinking. The ongoing acid mine drainage, metals contaminated fugitive dust and water pollution will continue in perpetuity. Similarly, many of the health consequences of mine pollution are the result of chromosomal damage which can be passed on to subsequent generations, long after the mine has closed.

If we had it to do over again, virtually no one in Salt Lake City would approve the Rio Tinto mine. Kamloops has the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. It would be tragic if that lesson is ignored.

Brian Moench, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School, is president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and member of Union of Concerned Scientists and of the radiation and health committee of the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Cherise Udell is president of Utah Moms for Clean Air.


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