Into the unknown regions: the hazards of STD

July / November 2000

This is the short version of a paper prepared by Nostromo Research for Down to Earth and Minewatch Asia-Pacific, July 2000, revised November 2000.


Part One: the scale of the crisis
Part Two: outrage grows and a "new" method of "containment" evolves
Part Three: conclusions
Figure 1: Mines that currently use - or have recently used - STD
Figure 2: Projects recently considered for STD
Appendix: Four important questions asked about STD


The issue isn't just STD - the problem is tailings:
the problem isn't just tailings, the issue is largescale mining

The safe disposal of mine-mill wastes ("tailings") poses the biggest challenge to the global mining industry: a challenge it is failing to meet, as catastrophic failures of waste containment proliferate, and while endemic problems are far from solution. This crisis is a direct result of strategies by corporate miners to cut costs, as they face falling or fluctuating profits, the pressures of competition and the dramatic collapse in prices of some metal markets. Their strategies include:

  • geographic expansion (marked new investment for exploration and exploitation of promising greenfield deposits in tropical zones);
  • political (increased corporate access to deposits, as state control founders, and landowner/Indigenous Peoples' rights fail to be honoured);
  • market-driven opportunism (especially in the case of gold);
  • technical cost-cutting (open-pit and strip mining rather than underground extractive techniques; increasing adoption of solution extraction; cheaper means of waste disposal)

Know your opponents!
Better technical understanding is crucial. But it's not the whole picture...

Understandably, it is the technological aspects of the "modern face of mining" which are least understood by those outside the mining industry yet concerned about its impacts. Nowhere is this better illustrated than with STD (Submarine Tailings Disposal) (* see footnote): the practice of piping mine/mill tailings as a slurry onto the seabed, now increasingly favoured by mining companies in the Asia Pacific region.

This is regrettable, because it enables industry defenders of "bad practice" to pull the wool over critics’ eyes ("You do not understand the technicalities of what we're proposing, so how can you say it's harmful?") It can also create divisions between critics of mining who have a scientific training and the majority who don't. Meanwhile largely untested, and certainly highly dubious, practices slip from "testing" towards "good practice", with barely a pause for democratic discussion and examination .

Whatever some spokespeople may claim, STD is not universally accepted: indeed it is specifically precluded by state regulation in the USA - the world's biggest single consumer of metals and, after earlier experiments, it has effectively been banned for nearly a decade in Canada. This heightens the anomaly that two of the four key corporate practitioners of STD (Placer Dome and Newmont) are based in North America, yet they feel free to do overseas (primarily in the Asia-Pacific) what they clearly could not get away with closer to home.

Were STD to be specifically endorsed by the key mining nations, this could make a crucial difference to the economic viability of a significant number of new projects. The major justification would be the escalating environmental and social costs of conventional containment: specifically the squandering of vital agricultural land, the threats of chronic tailings containment collapse, and the problems of permanent waste detoxification and rehabilitation. If STD became accepted as the safest means to deal with the single most intractable negative burden in mining, then other grounds for opposing a mine project inevitably would be weakened. It is not that these arguments lose their validity, but it would become more difficult to assert them as sufficient in themselves.

Conversely, if it could be demonstrated that STD presents threats equal to - or worse than - land disposal, at least some socially unacceptable mine proposals would never leave the drawing board. This would be more likely if its use were shown to threaten not only economic and ecological values, but to deny human and political rights as well.

Some caution is called for here. We should not focus on STD as if it were a discrete - or uniquely threatening - methodology, whose abolition would be sufficient in itself. Such a strategy could actually reinforce industry pressure for land options and enlargements of the area of tailings (including "buffer") sites. This could justify wholesale removals of Indigenous and farming/food gathering communities from their territory, to supposedly protect their safety and health.

Improvement is a chimera:
the problems are bound to get worse. Look who's in charge...

Nor should we be taken in by promises of better tailings containment on land. The stark reality is that - whatever "improved" techniques have been adopted in the past decade - as pits have got bigger, ore grades tended to become lower and mechanisation expanded - so the number and severity of catastrophes has increased exponentially. Over the past decade (1990-2000) there has been an average of one "world class" catastrophe every year.

One of the compelling arguments against STD made in the present study is that, though its chief advocates are high-profile companies and global technical consultancies, they have a disturbing reputation for drastic errors, deceits, malfeasance, and sheer incompetence. They are not new players in the game, who can boast unsullied reputations and argue they should be given a chance to prove their worth. On the contrary they are BHP, Placer Dome, Rio Tinto, Kvaerner and (to a lesser extent) Newmont, responsible for some of the world's most damaging mine projects, which have had disastrous consequences: Bougainville, Ok Tedi, Marcopper, and Grasberg. In the light of such recent histories, it is hardly surprising these outfits have been so ready to advocate a new methodology which promises to propel their biggest problem "out of sight and mind".

Above all - an Asia-Pacific issue

This paper was called for in 1999, as the result of demands made by several specific communities in the Pacific region. The demands centred on the unacceptable operations of the Newmont Minahasa mine, planned operations of Aurora Gold (both in North Sulawesi, Indonesia) and of the huge Batu Hijau copper-gold mine on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia (also managed by Newmont). They were also prompted by the intended use of STD by the Canadian-Norwegian mining company Mindex (assisted by Norwegian-British Kvaerner as its prime engineering consultant) on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. By this time, other regional projects had come under attack because of their use, or intended use, of STD: notably Misima, Lihir and Ramu, all three in Papua New Guinea.

In 1996, the collapse of tailings "containment" at the Philippines' Marinduque mine became the focus for joint international action against Placer Dome, its Canadian manager. Placer had already emerged as the world's chief corporate proponent of the practice: in 1997 it advocated STD as the preferred option for final disposal of tailings which had spewed into Calancan Bay, Marinduque (see below).

A movement emerging...a proposed conference, and next steps

During 1999, at least four major Northern NGOs concerned about mining's impacts were independently marshalling critiques of STD. Hot on the heels of the Los Frailes tailings dam collapse (Figure 1) the world's biggest public subscription conservation organisation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), called on the European Commission to draw up a management plan for tailings and minewaste [Mining Journal April 23 1999]. By the end of that year, the Indonesian national alliance on mining, JATAM, had mobilised against the practice throughout the country, and community action was being directed against the three mines mentioned earlier. A transnational campaign was initiated (in the Philippines, Norway and Britain) to support communities on Mindoro in their efforts to halt the Mindex project.

In Papua New Guinea, the leading peoples' rights organisation, ICRAF, assisted by the Australian Mineral Policy Institute (MPI) took up cudgels against the Ramu nickel-cobalt project, as did Papua New Guinea's National Fisheries Authority (see Figure 2). Meanwhile, although a united community campaign has not yet emerged to halt the huge Lihir gold mine, several land owner and church groups have expressed concerns about the ocean dumping of wastes, as well as other aspects of mineral exploitation on the island (Figure 1).

Following field trips to Indonesia and the Philippines in 1998-1999, and discussions with community representatives in both countries, Minewatch Asia-Pacific and Down to Earth (the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia) became convinced of the urgent need for a Pacific-based communities' conference on the practice of STD.

This paper is an attempt to summarise what is known of STD's current and past impacts, in order better to determine the agenda of such a conference. We must stress that it is a working paper, not a statement of any group's current policy. We very much hope that it will be read in this light. We warmly invite you to contribute additions, corrections and other proposals.


A worldwide mess

The safe disposal of tailings and other mine detritus (including overburden and waste rock) is acknowledged to be the most "problematic" technical challenge facing the mining industry - and one which is becoming more and more serious.

Each year, according to one estimate, some 15 billion tonnes of new tailings (sometimes mixed with "waste" rock and overburden, usually contaminated with chemical reagents and often with other detritus and pollutants) are deposited outside of metallic mine mills and other mineral extraction sites and open-pits. (If other solid and liquid wastes, especially from aggregates and coal mines were added to this figure, it would increase astronomically, probably by a factor of 300-400, ie. to around 5000 billion tonnes. Note that this is a thumbnail calculation based on US government and academic figures: it should be treated with caution, as with other "ball park" data of this kind.)

However, there is no international database of tailings sites. They are also rare at national level. There is not even a global figure of tailings dams, let alone their volume and physical and chemical composition.

Corporate irresponsibility

Many companies refuse - or are reluctant - to take responsibility for the massive legacy of toxic or acid-forming mine wastes already blighting our planet, even as they create additional ones .

The likely impact of ecospheric damage they cause can be gauged by a few examples. In the first eight years of operations at the Bougainville Copper mine (1968-1976) two hundred million tonnes of sediment clogged up the Kawerong and Jaba rivers, of which one third became deposited in the flood plains and the Jaba delta, thus "prograding" the Empress Augusta Bay by 30 metres [G Pickup and R J Higgins "Estimating sediment transport in a braided gravel channel - the Kawerong River, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea", Journal of Hydrology, Amsterdam, volume 40, 1979; see also L D Wright "Dispersal and deposition of river sediments in coastal seas: models from Asia and the tropics", Netherlands Journal of Sea Research, volume 23, 1989].

The Ok Tedi copper-gold mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea has dumped 80,000 tonnes a day of tailings into the Ok Tedi/Fly river systems since 1989, causing a 90% fish kill in the lower Ok Tedi river and a current or eventual "die back" of vegetation and forests of at least 900 square kilometres. This devastation could increase to as much as 6,600 square kilometres, if the entire catchment area were included ["Executive Summary, Assessment of Human Health and Ecological Risks for proposed mine waste mitigation options at the Ok Tedi Mine", OTML, Papua New Guinea, Detailed level risk assessment, August 6 1999].

But the world's worst "waster" is the Freeport/Rio Tinto-managed Grasberg mine across the border in West Papua (called Papua/Irian Jaya by Indonesia). Now the globe's biggest single gold producer and third biggest copper mine, Grasberg came on stream in 1973. By early 1999 it was casting no less than 200,000 tonnes of tailings each day into the Ajikwa river system.

Palliative responses

Growing international protests against tailings dam and "endemic" mine-waste disaster (occasional or regular leaching from thousands of mines worldwide) have prompted the mining industry to propose various "beneficial" uses of tailings or means to neutralise them. But only one of these - the reworking (often misnomered "reclamation") of tailings dumps (primarily in Asia and Africa) which still hold economic metallic values - promises to reduce heavy metal bio-availability, or acid drainage. And this still leaves behind virtually the same volume of wastes, along with the problem of neutralising the chemical reagents used in the "treatment" process, and ensuring longterm stability [see "Tailings retreatment in Northern Ontario" Engineering and Mining Journal (E&MJ) USA, September 1988 and E&MJ October 1989].

Theoretically, in-filling or backfilling, [treating and “replacing” tailings in old mine workings on closure] not only mitigates the toxicity of tailings, but can also stabilise treacherous underground shafts and help rehabilitate huge, ugly and dangerous open pits, suiting them for alternative use.

However, it requires impermeable, permanent linings and weather-resistant surface cover, as well as effective water run-off and collection systems, in order to stabilise metallic tailings over any length of time: this, along with the process of in-filling itself, can be prohibitively expensive. When pressed, some authorities have conceded that no lining, whether synthetic or natural (soil or clay) is impervious to leaking.This point is graphically illustrated by failures to deal adequately with higher acid (sulphide bearing) slag heaps at the huge Rio Tinto/BP Kaltim Prima coal mine in east Kalimantan [see MWAP/Nostromo Research, Kaltim Prima case study, London 1999].

Various "natural" methods of stabilising tailings, and attempts to neutralise them, have been proposed in the past 15 years. These include dry tailings disposal, the creation of wetlands to absorb heavy metals (see "Engineered wetlands and AMD" in Mining Environmental Management, London September 1993 and "Constructed wetlands - passive treatment of mine drainage" in Mining Journal supplement February 2 1991) and the addition of bacteria or algae to wastes (New Scientist May 25 1991), along with recycling effluent discharges through a variety of collection points.

Much of this sounds acceptable in theory. But practice (and costs) have a habit of jeopardising the best-laid plans of mines and men. For example, recycling and effluent treatment were judged unfeasible at the El Teniente copper mine in the Chilean Andes, where the dam was situated in a valley far below the mine workings, and 100,000 tonnes of waste water was daily being discharged at a powerful 1,500 litres per second. In 1991 siphoned the tailings onto cropland (sic) claiming this markedly increased agricultural productivity. The brains behind this scheme was Dames & Moore, which went on to win an Engineering Excellence Award (sic) for this effort, from the Utah-based Consulting Engineers Council [Financial Times, London June 6 1991].

Catastrophic costs?

The costs of "clean up" (another misnomer, since it implies not only effective detoxification but also removal which rarely, if ever, occurs) following disastrous "events", vary from site to site. None has come in at below US$100 million.

The prevailing definition of "costs" is often arbitrary and unacceptably narrow. It rarely includes paying adequate compensation to those whose health, goods, crops, land and drinking water quality have been directly degraded - or destroyed - 0by spills, leaks, or wholesale dam collapses, and the full costs of legal action in pursuit of these claims (if they ever reach court). The loss of income and benefits to mineworkers, the life-cycle replacement costs of degraded or depleted water are rarely evaluated.

Few companies go out of business as the result of the fines or compensation agreements imposed on them, or loss of confidence by shareholders, and some have devised methods by which to avoid financial liability or collapse.


In 1989 spokespeople for the mining industry had begun to publicly acknowledge at least some of the deleterious impacts of tailings disposal in rivers, streams, creeks and lakes and in “containment” lakes, dams and ponds [R Moody "The decade of betrayal", paper presented to the Conference on Mining, Environment and Social Conflicts, Third World Network-Africa, Accra, November 1999]. They were partly responding to the late 1988 Bougainville "revolt" provoked by the rejection of massive compensation demands made by landowners for the tailings devastation of the Jaba river and delta. A year later, additional wrath was sparked by BHP, when it persuaded the Papua New Guinea government to allow the company to break its original agreement, and continue throwing tailings from Ok Tedi directly into the river [MPI BHP Company Profile, Sydney, October 1997].

It was also at this time that Placer Dome, partnered by MIM of Australia, became the first mining outfit to use what, for the Pacific, was a new method of tailings disposal (Submarine Tailings Disposal or STD) at the Misima gold mine.

Meanwhile outrage had been growing over the lack of adequate tailings containment on Luzon island and elsewhere in the Philippines: two copper mines were discharging tailings which ended up in the sea. As a result, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) commissioned consultancy firm, Dames and Moore, with the assistance of US AID (Agency for International Development) to compare the three main methods of tailings disposal (land, river and marine-oceanic). Dames & Moore came out in favour of "marine tailings discharge" for the Philippines, while acknowledging that it may be inappropriate for other countries, such as the USA. However Dames & Moore also identified disadvantages or limitations to the methodology which both it and some of its clients appear to have downplayed or ignored over the ten years since.

Out of site - out of mine? The theory of STD - and its liabilities

No-one in the industry claims that STD can, or should, be used at all mine-mill sites, even if they are within practical reach of marine waters. Nor has any informed advocate claimed that it is the best available technology for all high mountain, island environments. Nonetheless in regions where rainfall exceeds evaporation and/or high seismic activity contributes to ground instability, it is now being promoted as a tested and preferred option in "much of the Philippines", Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Fiji [S Jones op cit].

In 1996, GESAMP (The Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) concluded there was general agreement that, "re-mobilising" muds and sands [as from tailings] in coastal waters can be physically detrimental to survival, growth, abundance and net productivity of marine biota - and that's without accounting for other chemical or nutrient discharges .The prime danger in this zone is that of turbidity maximum, - where discharges and sediments occlude sunlight and prohibit photosynthesis - the key to growth [W C Dennison and R S Alberte "Photosynthetic response of Zostera mainra L. (eelgrass) to in situ manipulations of light intensity," Oceologica 55, 1982].

The bottom or base of this "euphotic zone" is defined as the depth reached by only 1% of the light transmitted from the surface; the zone itself is situated below the "thermocline" (break between upper warm waters and deeper colder ones) which, in the industry literature is generally set at depths of 80-100 metres. STD promises to shift the toxic/smothering burden of tailings below the euphotic zone - into parts of the ocean where life and reproductivity are not terminally threatenend. The breakdown and dispersal of potentially toxic tailings does not need to be taken into account, since "...they will eventually be buried either by sediment eroded from land, and/or slow but continuous settlement of organic debris (marine snow) through the ocean water column" [S G Jones "Managing Mine Waste and Tailings - the Deep Sea Sea Tailing Placement Process", paper delivered at Mining Philippines'99 - Moving into the Next Millenium, Manila, 1999].

Tailings must be kept permanently sunk well below the surface mixed layer - that area of the ocean where wind and waves create a zone of more or less uniform temperature, salinity and density, in order to prevent wastes rising upwards ("upwelling"). However, the "best practice" in STD also demands (rather confusingly) the human creation of a "mixing zone" near or offshore, which is intended to dilute potential contaminants not diluted prior to discharge, so they don't prove harmful to marine life in the upper layers of water.

Since the diffusion of oxygen in water is very slow, any acid formed by oxidisation of the tailings should be absorbed into the overlying water column, while the predominantly alkaline nature of sea-water should "inhibit" consequent solubilisation of the metals [S Jones op cit]. Golder Associates, in its 1996 study of STD, concluded that, where tailings are relatively inert, the ocean floor could actually become a "sink" rather than a source of metals. The key question here, of course, is what is meant by "inert" - a problem to which we will soon return.

The rate and gradient of tailings discharge are crucial factors - both in maintaining the integrity of the pipeline itself (as illustrated graphically by the Minahasa incident - see Figure 1) and in ensuring settlement of the wastes in a "coherent density current" (continual flow) between the receiving seabed and greater oceanic depths [see "Natural Systems Research Ramu Nickel Project Environmental Plan Inception Report", Victoria, Australia 1997]. It seems generally accepted that gradients less than 12% will impede this process.

Numerous "buts" and "ifs"

Even if gradient, mixing and the de-toxicification of mine effluent are satisfactory (a big "if"), substantial quantities of tailings may separate from the primary outflow at the point of discharge. This is due to "discontinuities" (differences in attributes within water bodies, such as temperature, density or salinity), thus causing turbulence - characterised by "plumes" visible across the surface of the sea [Mineral Policy Institute "Environmental Risk associated with Submarine Tailings Discharge in Astrolabe Bay, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, a discussion paper" Sydney, February 1999]. (See also Lihir study in Figure 2).

In its 1991 study of tailings options, Dames & Moore defended STD as reducing many of the risks to surface waters, posed by heavy metals, changes in pH and large quantities of suspended solids typified by riverine disposal. It also argued that "when discharge [by STD] ceases, it is possible to have a....marine environment in which adverse impact rapidly ceases. This is never the case on land." The company downplayed the toxicity of tailings on benthic (bottom feeding) fauna, or interactions and interdependence between biota at depth and that closer to the surface.

However, Dames & Moore acknowledged that, simply flushing out wastes below 100 metres is not sufficient. As tailings are discharged, so seawater is "entrained" (carried along with the tailings) and a plume containing fine particulates and dissolved heavy metal ions can rise into an upper plume, presenting the "significant risk of adverse effects on fisheries." [Dames & Moore op cit]. The action of wind and waves on the upper stratification layer can result in suspended particles entering the water column and "potentially have adverse effect on fisheries and shallow water organisms such as corals." (At the 2000 International Coral Reef Symposium, held in Bali, it was noted that mercury-contaminated dust from a mine in Algeria had apparently been carried by winds 3,000 miles to contribute to contamination of Caribbean coral reefs [FT November 25 2000])

Critically - and this point is ignored by some mining companies - Dames & Moore stipulated that "fishermen from the project area should be interviewed for their knowledge of choice fishing grounds and ... fishery stocks." [Dames & Moore ibid.] In another observation, highlighted by recent failures in STD pipeline operation (see Minahasa case study, Figure 1) Dames & Moore pointed out that "...a marine outfall entails a substantial challenge to maintenance and repair, and excessive depth is undesirable from that standpoint". This means that there is an unpalatable "play off" between discharging tailings from the outfall well below the euphotic zone on the one hand, and being able to quickly identify and attend to any failure of the pipeline on the other. (Nonetheless, although the Minahasa pipeline breach occurred close to the surface, it reportedly took some days before it was properly attended to).

Dames & Moore summarised the essential data required before permitting marine discharge as:

  • expected grain size distribution of tailings
  • expected density of slurry at point of discharge
  • proposed percent solids by weight and volume in the discharge
  • predicted concentration of reagents in the tailings
  • predicted concentration of dissolved metals in tailings

Five years later, in its own study of STD, Golder Associates, another consultancy long associated with mine construction including tailings dams, was considerably more cautious about endorsing STD. "...[O]ur knowledge of the physics governing solids [in tailings] transport is relatively poor. Many models exist for predicting sediment movement in the marine environment. However most of those are usually understated (sic) and are indeed based on inappropriate (sic) parameterization derived from empirical studies of sediment movement in rivers..."

Golder found that fine tailings may remain in suspension in shallow waters for some time and that wave-induced re-suspension of these "can be significant in water depths exceeding 100 metres" [Golder Associates Report for EnviroCanada, April 4 1996] It recommends that (in addition to Dames & Moore's list of essential data) baseline oceanographic studies should be made on the bathymetry (ocean depths), local winds, fresh water inflows and tidal range in the area of concern, along with their seasonal variations and what Golder calls "infrequent events" (But what advocates of STD do not appear to have properly considered is that, in recent years, global as well as regional changes in the natural phenomena just mentioned have created unprecedented and unpredictable, rather than "infrequent" occurrences).

Tucked away near the end of its study, Golder delivered a disturbingly negative verdict on STD as currently practised: "...[T]here is a lack of data to suggest that a stable and homogeneous [marine] community has been achieved at any of the contemporary STD operations (although the presence of key species suggest succession is occurring). This is, in part, due to insufficient time for recovery to proceed, and lack of comprehensive data from all sites" [Golder op cit].

No man is an Island

The best known industry advocate of STD is a noted marine biologist, D V Ellis (Professor Emeritus , Department of Biology, University of -240Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; chairman of the scientific and ethical board of the US-Canada Sea Use Council). Some of Ellis' early work (up to 1990) has been cited approvingly by critics of mining's past and present damage. But he has long been a quasi- evangelical advocate of submarine tailings discharge. Buoyed up by his 1980's field work in Canada, he has travelled in the south Pacific, employed in an advisory capacity by Placer Dome - a company notoriously committed to STD. Indeed one commentator claims that Ellis was brought by Placer Dome to the Philippines in 1998, to persuade the government to accept STD as a "solution" to the massive environmental degradation at Marinduque, caused by the 1996 collapse of a "plug" in a mined-out pit used to store tailings [Catherine Coumans "Should tailings be pumped out to sea?" Institute on Church and Social Issues, Canada, December 1998].

On Placer's behalf, in 1994 Ellis organised a conference in Fiji, where scenarios for the proposed Namosi copper-gold mine's tailings disposal were played out, while subtly being directed towards tolerance of STD ["Report on EIA workshop", University of the South Pacific, Suva May 9-13th 1994]. He is also a founder of Rescan Environmental Services - the consultants who became notorious, not only for their involvement in design of the notorious Omai tailings dam, but also of facilities at the fateful Marinduque site [Coumans ibid]. In addition, Rescan helped design the Minahasa mine of Newmont, the first to employ STD in Indonesia (see Figure 1).

Ellis' defence of STD has been consistent, despite apparently carrying out field tests at only two mines - both in north America and both now closed - Island Copper and Kitsault. His Island Copper data seems to derive from observations made six years after the mine opened, without the benefit of baseline studies. [see I L Littlepage, D V Ellis, I Mcinerney "Marine Disposal of Mine Tailings", Marine Pollution Bulletin, volume 15, no 7, Britain 1984]. Two years following closure, Ellis was claiming that Island Copper had "proven" the technology of STD, and that "the prototype system developed here has been used successfully elsewhere" [Derek Ellis "Address to the 1997 Mining Philippines conference", quoted in Businessworld, October 16 1997].

Rupert Inlet

Rupert Inlet, on the west coast of Canada, received around 50,000 tonnes a day of mill tailings from the Island Copper mine between 1971 and 1995 - a total of 400 million tonnes in its 24 years period of operation. The tailings were released at only 50m depth to a fjord, and were supposed to flow as a density current into the deep sea "placement" zone. However, an unexpected "remobilisation" of the tailings resulted in a proportion of them (0.3%, or well over one million tonnes) spilling over a sill into the adjoining fjord, Quatsino Sound [Jones ibid].

Grab samples and "submersible surveys" between 1981 and 1984 purportedly allowed an estimate of the presence of a large number of benthic and faunal organisms which might be affected by solids settling out from the tailings. But the results of these surveys were in many respects, manifestly inconclusive: they showed a certain resilience by benthic fauna in some areas, but not in others [see D V Ellis and C Heim "Submersible surveys of Benthos near turbidity cloud", Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 16 no 5, Britain 1985]. These - and similar - results have been used to propose that, while tailings deposition below the turbidity plume can have short-term catastrophic effects on some biota, the recovery - or replacement - rate is better than might have been expected.

Ellis' qualified endorsement of Island Copper encapsulates what is not only palpably unscientific, but also morally questionable, about the practice of STD. First, he endorses a significant degree of environmental degradation, and indeed destruction, of marine life, without being able to define in advance just what , when, and how much, the biota will suffer. Second, the favourable comparisons he makes with alternative (primarily land-based) disposal methods are based upon worst, rather than best, case experience of the latter. Third - and most important - he seems to accept that, whatever goes on under the sea as a result of the use of STD, can be legitimately and indefinitely obscured from what the industry likes calling its "stakeholders " - and the most important ones at that, namely those dependent on the affected marine resources.

Island Copper has now been closed for more than five years. Shortly after closure, Golder Associates studied data from Ellis and others in its 1996 assessment on STD for EnviroCanada, exposing numerous flaws in methodology, monitoring and sampling procedures, along with failures to anticipate the behaviour of deep sea currents [Golder op cit]. EnviroCanada continues to monitor the mine's tailings impacts and, in 1999, one of its scientists concluded that, although the mine's land surface area has been reclaimed, strong tidal currents continue to re-mobilise fine tailings on parts of the ocean floor at Rupert Inlet, indicating that they have far from stabilised. While biota has "recovered" (a term Golder deliberately uses in preference to "recolonization") species are neither the same nor of such diversity as existed before, and the "hard bottom" species have been completely eliminated [Robert McCandless email to Minewatch Asia Pacific and Down to Earth, London June 7 1999].

More disasters...

The Kitsault mine looked like being a model for safe STD, although aspects of the initial plan were vigorously opposed by Native Canadians pursuing their land claims [Derek Ellis "Kitsault, BC - Technical Communciation in a Non-technical world", Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 13 no 3, Britain 1982] . When Kitsault opened, both the Polaris mine in Canada and Black Angel in Greenland were undergoing some form of impact assessment of their tailings disposal procedures (Black Angel's was later shown to have been almost calamitous - see Figure 2). More important at this juncture, however, was the intention of Rio Tinto's wholly owned-subsidiary, US Borax, to exploit one of the world's biggest molybdenum deposits, which sat right at the centre of the recently-declared Alaska National Wilderness area. The company had successfully manoeuvred to get Quartz Hill - site of the main deposit - excised from this vast area, by pulling senatorial and congressional strings in Washington [see "Plunder!" Partizans and CAFCA London 1991].

By 1982, this ruthless mining company was strongly lobbying for STD as the best economic option to off-load the vast amounts of toxic wastes which the mine would have produced [see D V Ellis "Marine Tailings Disposal", Ann Arbour Science, Ann Arbour, 1982]. The project was knocked back and is not likely to proceed.

Initial surveys of the Kitsault STD system claimed to show that "no suspended tailings [were generated] within the photic zone and generally less than 5ppm above 150m water depth...even close to the discharge outfall" [Littlepage, Ellis and McInerney, op cit]. However, even before the mine was closed on cost grounds just over a year later in 1982, conflict had arisen between government scientists on the one hand and industry on the other, as to the meaning of the monitored results [D V Ellis in Salmons and Forster, op cit].

The Misima gold mine in Papua New Ginea has been claimed as "the best studied operating mine [using STD] in the world" [S Jones op cit] and the first where the technology was properly examined from concept through to operation [see S G Jones and D V Ellis, "Deep water STD at the Misima gold and silver mine, Papua New Guinea", Marine Georesources and Geotechnology, volume 13, 1995]. The mine's design outfall level is 112m, with the tailings intended to settle at between 1,000 and 1,500 metres depth. Cyanide from the milling process is washed three times, thickened to 50% to permit its recycling, with dilution by seawater before disposal [S Jones 1999]. It is claimed that tailings have never risen to the surface of the ocean and that, by 1997, "microscopic organisms" were already "colonising" the dumped material [NSR Environmental Consultants "Review of Submarine Tailing Disposal, Misima Mine PNG"]. (But see also recent report quoted in fig. 2.)


STD must be seen primarily in a political and human rights context. Its adaptation from the north (where its most passionate advocates fraudulently claim it has been given a clean book), primarily to the tropical waters of the Pacific, is a direct result of economic and policy decisions. These have been determined or dictated by leading mining companies, in order to move away from more costly or politically problematic mining in certain areas, and to exploit metallic deposits in areas of plate tectonic activity (islands and archipelagos). Here the potential for on-land catastrophic disaster is much greater than elsewhere. It is therefore argued that the "technology" of STD is cheaper than land-based methods and that it disposes of huge amounts of potentially toxic, acidic, heavy-metal laden, aesthetically ugly, and ecologically burdensome slurries of chemicals, particulates, polluted waters, soils, rock, and ores, which have no honourable place on land.

Some of these justifications are made ex post facto: they are reactions to the mounting concern and - in some cases (like Bougainville) - outright rejection by land-based communities of conventional tailings disposal. Insofar as engineered STD has "another history" it derives largely from north America and to a lesser extent northern Europe. But, as we have seen, this is a distinctly tainted history. Although it is inaccurate to assert that regulatory authorities in these regions automatically reject marine dumping of tailings and minewastes, any near-future use of it would meet considerable public and political resistance. In short STD is neither a tried, nor recognised, technique for ridding the mining industry of its worst nightmares.

Its pretended economic worth is also highly speculative. It rests on the virtually impossible task of comparing the degradation of offshore waters and deep sea fishing resources, with the sustainable use value of land and waters where tailings are currently deposited, and which they will continue to adversely affect. Since STD has only recently been employed in tropical waters (effectively since Misima in 1989, if we discount "rogue" examples such as Atlas and Marcopper in the Philippines or tin dredging off the coasts of southeast Asia), such a comparison would have to wait many years for validation.

There is an argument that sudden failure of a land-based tailings containment has proved to be the very worst case scenario [see Richard T Jackson op cit]. Therefore anything else is bound to be less costly and more desirable. This argument was made by BHP in its defence for not continuing with dam construction at its Ok Tedi mine (see above), after three successive collapses in the 1980's. However, the justification was undermined - and by the company itself - in 1999. Then it was forced to acknowledge that riverine disposal - the alternative employed - has created unacceptable levels of siltation and contamination, and vegetation "die back" in a vast expanse of territory downstream. Is it fanciful to suggest that, after fifteen years operation of the Minahasa mine in North Sulawesi, or the Lihir mine in Papua New Giunea, the consequent smothering of benthic fauna and depletion of vital fish stocks might provoke an equally damning conclusion by independent analysts?

These arguments, though strong, nonetheless force us to look through the wrong end of the telescope. Surely the key question is whether both a community's social "fabric" and its biosphere can sustain a mining operation in the first place? To help answer this question, there must be, not only full life cycle assessment of all possible methods of tailings disposal, but also regional multi-disciplinary studies of the cumulative impacts of having several STD operations within a given sea, supported by comprehensive regional baseline 0studies for all social and biological parameters.

As Golder Associates concluded from their assessment of the impacts of the Island Copper Mine, the massive accumulation of tailings on the seafloor of Rupert Inlet may "alter the nature of the exchange processes through Quasino Narrows. The considerable accumulation of tailings on the seafloor of Rupert Inlet have changed the bathymetry of the inlet and this in turn may alter the circulation patterns and the nature of the ocean currents" [Golder Associates op cit]. It is striking that, despite Island Copper having utilised STD for 24 years -240and now closed for an additional five years (and though it is the most studied of all longterm STD operations anywhere) Golder could only speculate about the longterm impacts. Nonetheless it clearly feared the worst.

Even if accurate assessments of such vast oceanic impacts were possible, two major political questions must be addressed.

Asserting and exercising "rights"

First, what legislation should exist which would guarantee the quality of marine life, and grant community title to the coastal shelf and submarine resources? Who has the rights, to both the tailings and "waste" rock "disposed" of during mining, and therefore the right to decide how it is disposed of and (if feasible) re-used? This is not an academic question. Important mineral "values" may be left in tailings which could be recovered at a later stage (a point acknowledged by Dames & Moore in their 1991 study - q.v.). Indeed tailings "treatment" or "recovery" is now an acknowledged economic activity which (it is alleged) can also contribute materially to the detoxification of these dumps. (See above for further discussion of this point). Clearly, thrusting mineral-containing tailings onto the seabed renders them much more inaccessible than if they were retained in some form of land-based facility.

But there is an even more vital "right" which is denied by STD: that of locally-affected people to observe, monitor (or have monitored) the behaviour of tailings, and to use the evidence to secure remediatory action, or compensation. The 1996 settlement between Ok Tedi landowers and BHP would have been much less likely - if not inconceivable - had BHP, instead of piping its tailings into a relatively pristine overground river, cast them directly onto the bottom of the Torres Straits. This would have created huge difficulties in proving cause and attributing responsibility. The Independent Benefits Package, held up by Lihir Management Company as a ground-breaking best case example, does not include compensation for either the temporary or permanent loss of fish and benthic resources [Ron Brew, "The Lihir Experience - Project Development Issues in Papua New Guinea", presentation to the Madang conference on Monitoring Mine Operations and Environmental Performance, Papua New Guinea July 1998].

Finally, whatever the consequences of land-based minewaste disposal (which this paper in no way endorses), STD constitutes a unique assault on the marine environment and its dependent life forms, and is the antithesis of any accepted definition of "sustainable development". If conventional tailings treatment for a specific project is reckoned to be prohibitively expensive, too risky, or proves unacceptable to local people, the viable alternative is not to dump them at sea. Quite simply, the mine itself must not be allowed to proceed.

*footnote: Throughout this paper the term STD is used in preference to similar terms to describe the same technology. A brief explanation of these other acronyms can be found in the Appendix of "Questions". back to main text


Listed here are "intentional" or "engineered" STD operations. Fuller descriptions are given of those which have not received much critical attention elsewhere. Not included are mines which dump wastes into rivers or estuaries or along shorelines, even if they may destroy part of the marine environment. (For a representative list of these see D V Ellis "Case Histories of Coastal and Marine Mines", in W Salomons, U Forster (eds) "Chemistry and Biology of Solid Wastes. Dredged Material and Mine tailings" [Springer-Verlag Germany 1986]).


  • Cleveland Potash at Boulby [see C G Down and A J B Mill "Marine disposal of Mine tailings" in MJ Jones (ed) "Proceedings of 11th Commonweatlh Mining and Metallurgical Congress", 1978].


  • Island Copper on Vancouver Island, British Columbia , which closed in 1995 after 24 years (for further discussion see text above).
  • Jordan River copper mine, operated from 1962-1974.
  • Kitsault molybdenum mine, British Columbia, which from 1967 to 1972 discharged tailings uncontrolled into a creek [D V Ellis, in Salomon and Forster op cit] and was reopened using STD in 1981. However, it operated for only 18 months (1981 -1982) (For a further discussion see above).


  • Huasco Iron Pelletising plant, which has operated from 1994 [S Jones op cit].


  • The "Angel of death"

    The Black Angel lead-zinc mine was opened in 1972, before home rule was granted to the Indigenous population, and it operated until 1991 [S Jones op cit] off-loading tailings onto a silled basin at the entrance to a fjord. Just over ten years later metals were discovered to have leached from these wastes into other fjords, while trace quantities of lead and zinc were found in three out of four species tested, with probable bioaccumulation in other species [J S Moller "Hydrodynamics of an arctic fjord", Denmark 1984 quoted in D W Ellis in (eds) Salomons and Forster, op cit]. Another study showed that significant amounts of oxidised lead and zinc were also soluble at ambient pH sea water, exacerbated by use of sea water in the milling process [G W Poling and D V Ellis "Importance of Geochemistry: the Black Angel lead-zinc mine Greenland" in Marine Geosciences and Geotechnology no 13, 1995].


  • Major impacts at Minahasa

    The Minahasa "case" is important because this is a recent, modest-sized project, delivering only one mineral (gold) and 0disposing of relatively small amounts of tailings (only 3% of the volume expected from Newmont's Batu Hijau mine - q.v.) into the world's deepest and most capacious ocean. When such an operation goes badly wrong, it augurs ill for bigger mines.

    Minahasa Gold mine is operated by PT Newmont Minahasa Raya, (owned by Newmont Gold of the USA), and based in north Sulawesi. It opened in March 1996 and, by 1998, had produced 8.3 tonnes of gold [Suara Pembaruan, August 2 1999].

    The tailings pipeline proceeds for 8.42 kilometres from the Mesel pit then enters the sea at Ratatotok on Buyat bay, where it travels just over another kilometre before disposing of around 2000 tonnes a day at just 82 metres depth [Website information from Rescan, the construction company for the pipeline]. This is just two metres below the accepted minimum level for STD discharge and about half the depth of the actual thermocline, according to one Indonesian authority; he also states that the thermocline does not operate anywhere in Indonesian coastal waters, above a depth of between 150 and 300 metres [John L Pariwonow, Oceanography Laboratory, Bogor Agricultural University, quoted in Suara Pembaruam, August 2 1999]

    The mine purportedly removes cyanide, arsenic and mercury by neutralisation, and evacuates the tailings under vacuum pressure, to minimise oxygen bubbles [Jakarta Post September 7 1999]

    But local people at Buyat claim that details of the environmental impact assessment were never published for their benefit.

    Within several months of opening, according to fishermen in Ratatotok, their catches had been reduced by 70%. In July 1998 around 300 local people demonstrated against Newmont, occupying the minesite for seven hours, accusing the company of imposing fines on smallscale miners and demanding that it pay taxes on material which had been removed and increase its royalites to the government (the tax issue remained a bone of contention until 2000).

    In early August 1998 the tailings pipeline was discovered to have broken and be leaking: the breach might have occurred in July [Kabar, Yayasan Tanah Merdeka, Manado, Sulawesi, 15-22 September 1998]. Prompted by local people, the provincial legal aid organisation, LBH Manado, reported the incident, but the company did not halt production for several days [Down to Earth no 39, London, November 1998]. Newmont's official explanation for this major failure was that excess water from a borehole entered the pipeline, causing a temporary blockage which was then "treated" with water. This in turn disabled the "choke station" near the exit point at the beach and consequent air pressure damaged the pipeline just ten metres below the surface ["Manado Post" September 12 1998].

    At a seminar held in August 1999 in Manado, defenders of STD included L T Z Kakanebhum, a lecturer in Marine Biology at UNSRAT University, who claimed that reef fish had actually increased in numbers since 1998, even though he agreed bleaching had destroyed coral reefs up to ten metres depth ["Suara Pembaruan" op cit]. The national Indonesian Environment Forum, WALHI, stated that, between April and May 1999, nearly 50 fisherpeople were affected by various skin complaints, and had reported severe reductions in marine catches. Professor Max Rompas, Professor of Marine Biology at UNSRAT, demanded that another EIA should urgently be carried out ["Suara Pembaruan" op cit].

    In an on-site survey at Ratatotok carried out by Minewatch Asia-Pacific and Nostromo Research, fishermen in Buyat Bay confirmed the drastic reductions of available fish catches (they claimed the absence of at least a dozen identified species since the mine came on stream). The main source of river water in the village was showing signs of unacceptably high siltation. Villagers said they had been assured by the company that marine tailings deposition would accumulate to only one metre thickness on the ocean floor, over the 12 years of the mine's operation. However they believed it had already climbed to three metres.

    Using video footage shot around the breached pipe, Newmont has continued to insist that fish have been behaving "normally" and that catches have been maintained. When challenged on this by Professor Sam Ratulangi, whose own fish samples had shown dramatic pollutional impacts, the company retorted that these results were "completely different" from those of the company ["Jakarta Post" May 6 2000].

  • Batu Hijau

    Newmont's only dedicated copper mine, this world-class (US$1.9 million) operation came on-stream in late 1999, and is planned to be producing 700,000 tonnes a year of concentrates by the close of 2000 [Mining Journal December 17 1999]. This will go to thirteen smelters in Japan, South Korea, Australia and Europe [Mining Journal ibid, and Jakarta Post September 7 1999]; the mine will also deliver half a million ounces of gold per year over the next two decades. Ownership is 45% Newmont (held through Newmont Nusa Tenggara, an 80% subsidiary of Newmont Gold), 26% Sumitomo Corp., 5% Sumitomo Metal Company (Japan), 2.5% Mitsubishi Materials Corp (Japan), 1.5% Furukawa Co Ltd (Japan), with the remaining 20% held by the Indonesian company PT Pukuafu Indah. Debt financing of a billion dollars was provided by government institutions in the US and Indonesia, and reportedly other investors from Germany [Jakarta Post September 7 op cit].

    Discontent over the manner in which Newmont appropriated land for the vast complex (mine, port, processing plant, satellite township, roads and an additionally financed tourist project) became widespread soon after acquisition commenced. Productive farmland was taken without landowner permission, or at well below prevailing commercial rates; the company was accused of paying discriminatory wages and reneging on the promised community facilities. Thirty farmers' land was acquired for the STD pipeline alone, which enters the water at the Rantung Sejorong/Tongo beach. Newmont set up a community development programme, the motives for which were exposed by the late Sander Thoenes for the Financial Times in 1999, aptly sub-headed: "A mining company has handed over responsibility for community funds without losing control over the projects". Although the rules insist on unanimous decision-making, by keeping a representative on the community board, said Thoenes, Newmont secures a "quiet veto" over anything it doesn't approve. "We try to avoid the problem of having to rush their community needs into our timetable" comments Stephen Ferer, Newmont's head of community development at Batu Hijau. [Financial Times' 'The Business", London, undated 1999]


  • The Ballangen mine in the north of Norway, from 1917 to 1964 under the management of Nikkel and Olivin AS, was permitted to discharge acidic tailings into a local river, then into a nearby fjord [S Jones op cit].

Papua New Guinea:

  • The Lihir Gold mine

    The Lihir Gold mine on Lihir island has been operating since 1996, managed by Rio Tinto (though the British-Australian company is taking steps to sell its holding). The mine disposes through a marine pipeline a cocktail of tailings including sulphides, copper, cadmium, lead, and arsenic. The company has admitted that leachates will destroy 7km of coral reef ["Taking Responsibility: Metal mining, people and the environment", Milieudefensie, Amsterdam, December 1997].

    In 1995 OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation), the US government political risk insurance agency, refused to insure the Lihir mine, on the grounds that its employment of STD would contravene various US domestic acts, including the Clean Water Act and Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act [Goldland ibid] as well as the London Convention on dumping at sea (see Appendix: Questions).

    The following year the World Bank did grant political risk insurance via MIGA (Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency) [Peter Bosshard: "Tainted Gold from the Pacific; paper on Lihir", Berne Declaration, Zurich 1996]. But it seems to have seriously considered rejecting Rio Tinto's application beforehand [information from Peter Bosshard 1996]. WB President James Wolfensohn reportedly told a meeting of Swiss parliamentarians in May 1996, that the project would be "disastrous" ["Taking Responsibility..." op cit; see also Goodland op cit].

    Since coming on-stream, conflicts among Lihirians have been prompted, among other factors, by allegedly unfair distribution of benefits, ethnic discrimination, environmental problems and social tensions deriving from precipitate industrialisation [see for example "Lihir workers call off strike" The National, Papua New Guinea, April 23 1998; "Apartheid on Lihir island" Post Courier, Port Moresby, April 27 1998; "Locals at Lihir shut mine for short time" Post Courier, July 7 1998; email statement to Partizans, London from Lihir Landowners, February 1999].

    It is difficult to determine what role the massive use of STD has had in propelling such dissent. However, as early as 1997, one report commented on the "littering" of the sea near the tailings outfall of gull and albatross carcasses. And in 1999 a foreign tourist took an aerial picture of a large tailings plume emanating from and around the Lihir tailings, which seemed to be the result of "upwelling" in the bay.

  • Misima

    Misima Gold Mine (Highland Pacific Gold, formerly Placer Pacific) has operated operating STD since 1989, on the island of Misima, 200 km east of Papua New Guinea. It dumps up to 22,000 tonnes of tailings a day into the Solomons Sea at a depth of 112ms. A "...carpet of tailings 75 km thick already covers 20 square kilometers of seabed, obliterating all life" [Fred Pearce "Tails of Woe", New Scientist, London November 11 2000]. Stephen Jones - a leading advocate of STD (he works for NSR Environmental Consultants, in Australia) - admits that, while some of the organisms will eventually return "...they will inhabit a much poorer ecosystem in which "hard-bottom" habitants are gone for good" [Pearce, ibid]. In 1997 a submarine landslide broke the discharge pipe, although the company claims the tailings settled swiftly onto the ocean floor.


  • Marinduque

    The Marinduque copper mine, managed by Placer Dome of Canada (through its stake in Marcopper Ltd), was closed in 1996 after catastrophic failure of a "plug" inserted in a tunnel separating the old Tapian mine pit used for tailings and the Boac river [see FPP et al "Undermining the Forests" op cit]. Previously the Tapian mine had disposed of its tailings - some 200 million tonnes between 1975 and 1991 - into the coral-rich shallow waters of Calancan Bay. Defenders of STD would claim that this is not an acceptable implementation of practice, since the tailings were discharged at surface (albeit via a 14km pipeline} where they eventually formed a toxic plateau [Undermining the Forests, ibid].

    However, in response to the Boac river disaster, and a damning UN on-site study of its impacts, Placer Dome in 1997 proposed STD as its preferred option for final disposal of the tailings which accumulated in the near-shore "dredge channel". Although the company's request was denied by the Philippine Environment Secretary, he was overruled later than year. Placer was permitted to include the option in its environmental impact assessment, so long as this focussed "a major part on alternative land based disposal options…" The stipulation did not prevent the Canadian company from continuing to lobby strongly for STD among local people [Catherine Coumans "Should tailings be pumped out to sea" Institute of Church and Social Issues, 29 December 1998].

  • Atlas doesn't bear up

    The Atlas Consolidated copper mine on Cebu Island opened in 1971, using a nearby strait for tailings disposal [S Jones op cit]: it is therefore debatable whether this could be described as STD. A typhoon in 1993, followed by heavy mudflows, closed the operation and, by the end of 1994, the company was losing money hand over fist. [South East Asia Mining Letter January 27 1995]. Atlas reportedly suffered its worst catastrophic "event" in mid-1999 when millions of gallons of barely-contained acidic wastes spewed into rivers, creeks and into coastal waters [information from Philippines to Minewatch Asia-Pacific August 16th 1999].


  • The Cayeli Bakir copper and zinc operated from 1994 until present [S 0 Jones, op cit] with Inmet of Canada writing down its investment in the faltering project in late 1996 [MJ 8/11/99].




  • Voisey's Bay nickel-cobalt-copper prospect in Labrador (owned by Inco).


  • Mount Kasi Gold mine on Vanua Levi island.
  • Namosi Copper and gold project (formerly Placer Pacific, now Royal Oak Mines) on Viti Levu.


  • PT Meares Soputan Mining at Likupang/Toka Tindung, North Sulawesi. This potentially largescale gold mine (the company has also been prospecting elsewhere in the region [Aurora Gold Annual Report 1997]) is located at the boundaries of the famed Tangkoko Nature reserve (Cagar Alam Tangkoko), an area of great natural beauty, lapped by crystal clear waters, visited by white mariner birds, and abundant in fish. Its unique beach-forest biosphere was "introduced" to the West through the scientific exploits of Alfred Wallace, the precursor of Charles Darwin [see Tim Servin "The Spice Islands Voyage" Little Brown and Co New York 1997]. It is a refuge for several endemic species, including a unique small deer and the Sulawesi black macaque [Information from Konservasi Flora dan Fauna Sulawesi (Koffas) MWAP field trip March 1999]. The village of Batu Putih, which will almost certainly be wiped off the map if commercial mining is permitted, depends on fishing (around 60% of families in a population of more than 3,000) and the management of "home stays" for a steady, if currently modest, stream of "eco tourists".

    The local company is 85% owned by Aurora Gold, an Australian company whose unacceptable exploitation at another minesite - Mount Muro Kencana Gold in Kalimantan - provoked a peaceful Dayak occupation and blockade in 1999 [JATAM press release, Jakarta, September 29 1999]. This triggered vicious counter-actions by company security personnel recruited from other settlements in the concession area [Jatam press release, Jakarta, October 11 1999]. The other 15% of Soputan is owned by PT Austindo, a company controlled by the Tahija family [Jakarta Post August 27 1997] with investments in Australia and recently active in Burma [see Roger Moody "Grave Diggers: the unacceptable case of mining in Burma," Burma consortium. Nostromo Research, Minewatch Asia-Pacific et al Canada 2000, in press]. Drilling at Toka Tindung started in 1995 [Southeast Asia Mining Letter, March 29 1996] and initial government approval was given in late 1996 [Yayasan Suara Nurani data base, Manado 1998]. Dames & Moore was employed as consultants.

    The likely route of the STD pipeline is downhill from the minesite into the Likupan bay via a narrow volcanic beach (the company has bought nearly 90% of the land required from a local headman [Mining Advocacy Report - PT Meares Soputan, March-April 1999, Yayasan Suara Nurani and Koffas, Manado] then across the limpid shallow fishing waters, to an atoll less than one kilometre offshore [Site investigation by Minewatch Asia-Pacific March 1999]. Villagers living at the main coastal settlement of Batuputih, backed by regional environmental organisations, solidly oppose the whole operation, pointing out that the bay is subject to monthly "circular" currents which would lead to upwelling. The company told students of the Marine Sciences department at Manado's UNSRAT University, that the thermocline in the bay was situated at 100 metres [MWAP report op cit]; nonetheless, local fisherman have claimed to catch a vairety of deep-water fish, called malkera, at twice this depth. In welcoming a critique of STD presented by this author in a seminar at Batuputih in early 1999, one fisherman commented: " A professor came from the company who made it all sound okay. But your explanation now makes sense, because it corresponds to what we know of how the ocean behaves" [MWAP op cit].

    As 1999 drew to a close, Aurora seemed to be having second thoughts about this controversial project despite reportedly spending US$52 million on infrastructure. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the local government was allowing 1,500 local smallscale miners to reclaim parts of the site, a situation one western diplomat was said to have described as "anarchy" [Far Eastern Economic Review December 16 1999].

  • Awak Mas Gold (Lone Star Explorations, along with Gascoigne Gold Mines and PT Asmincoi Bara Utama) [Mining Journal January 26 1996] South Sulawesi [personal communication Robert McCandless to Minewatch October 29 1999].
  • Asia-Pacific Nickel (BHP and PT Aneka Tambang) at Gag Island, north of Papua [McCandless ibid]. Weda Bay prospect (BHP and Strand Minerals (Indonesia) Ltd) in Central Halmahera [Mining Annual Review 1999]

Kanaky (New Caledonia)

  • Late last year, the Canadian nickel giant INCO commissioned a pilot plant employing pressure acid leach/solvent extraction for its nickel-cobalt project on the island of Goro. The mine is managed and 85% owned by the Canadian company, with the French BRGM holding the remainder. If commercial production follows, Goro could be delivering 54,000 tonnes of nickel and 5,000 tonnes of cobalt annually - making it one of the world's major ni-co producers [Inco Newswire October 22 1999], and one of the planet's most significant practitioners of STD.


  • Petaquilla copper (S Jones op cit)

Papua New Guinea

  • Sumberi Gold project, Sumberi Island, New Ireland province (in the hands of Nord Resources Pacific Pty, owned by Nord Resources of the US, itself majority owned by Consolidated Rutile of Australia) [McCandless op cit].
  • Woodlark Gold (Highlands Gold) Woodlark Island, Milne Bay province [McCandless ibid].
  • Ramu prospect (Highlands Gold and Nord Resources) at Astrolabe Bay, Madang province.

    This nickel-cobalt-chromite project, owned 65% and managed by Highlands Pacific Ltd (set up by BHP), is planned to have a working life of 20 years at a (1999) cost of US$838 million, generating a life-time income of US$5,400 million. US$100 million of this would go to the Madang provincial government (in addition to any community package or equity shares for local landowners). But, according to the National Fisheries Authority of PNG, the project will jeopardise some US$200 million income from the development of tuna fishing along the coast, if it employs the intended DSTD method of tailings dispersal.

    Although the environmental management plan was approved by the PNG government last year (Highlands Pacific claiming that the national and local review process "did not identify any [negative] issues" [The National, 28 October 1999]), the project has come under heavy attack from both local residents and national organisations (including the respected Individual and Community Rights Action Forum, ICRAF). At Mindere village, along the Rai coast, villagers destroyed company property and fought with company guards, despite the police arguing the mine "was the best way to come up in the world like a whiteman" [MPI Briefing Paper on the Ramu Nickel-Cobalt Project, Sydney 1999].

    The most strident criticism has come from the National Fisheries Authority (Fisheries Management and Industry Support division) which, in its 1999 examination of the mine's environmental plan, made (inter alia) the following points:

    1. The Vitiaz Basin (including Astrolabe which will initially receive the Ramu tailings) is the site of frequent upwellings from cold waters that are critical for the fertility and prosperity of fisheries (especially tuna) as vital sediments are moved up and down the whole Madang coast. The company's proposal to pipe tailings out at 150 meters depth is unacceptable since, during monsoons, upwelling can occur at 140 metres depth.
    2. The bathymetry of the "canyons" leading into the Vitiaz basin cannot support DSTD (Deep Seat Tailings Disposal) - at least as proposed - since the slopes are "gentle" (only 3 degrees).
    3. Fast westward winds blow through the Vitiaz strait, entraining nearshore waters along the Eastern Rai coast, which are then replaced by colder waters. This presents the danger that particulates from the STD outfall pipeline "may be discharged to the archipelagic waters" [Kokolo et al ibid].

    The National Fisheries authority concludes that, instead of promoting mining, Highlands Pacific should devote its resources and capital to promoting sustainable fishing:

    "Once the economic engine which is Ramu Nickel shuts down, the land has been damaged, the fish are gone from the streams, the people have grown lazy and do nothing. This is totally against the Constitutional rights of Papua New Guinea citizens for integral human development" [Ursula Kokolo et al, National Fisheries Authority, Fisheries Management and Industry Support Division Recommendations on the Ramu Nickel project Environmental Plan, Port Moresby March 31, 1999].


  • Toquepala and Cuajone copper prospects [S Jones op cit]


  • Kingking Copper-gold (Echo Bay Mines) in the Davao Gulf, southern Mindanao (McCandless op cit).
  • Mindoro Nickel (Mindex, owned by Crew Resources of Canada and Norway and backed by Kvaerner AS as a consultant) on the island of Mindoro is vigorously opposed by an alliance of local Indigenous organisations, Philippine Indigenous Links (Britain) and Norwatch (Norway). A misinformation campaign by the operating company, aimed at getting endorsement for STD from local communities, abjectly failed during 1999 [Minewatch Asia-Pacific briefing documentation, Philippines and London 1999].
  • Tampakan copper-gold project, southern Mindanao [S Jones op cit], operated by Western Mining (WMC) of Australia; the company has since announced its withdrawal from the project.


  • Bugotu nickel prospect in Santa Isabel province [McCandless ibid].


  • Alaska Jumeau (AJ) Gold , where STD was planned but not used [S Jones op cit].
  • Quartz Hill molybdenum (Rio Tinto Borax) Alaska. This was the first US STD project initially approved by the USEPA under the National Environmental Policy Act, after widespread opposition from environmental organisations and fisherpeople [D W Ellis, in Salomons and Forster, op cit]. Thanks partly to widespread popular opposition the mine has not opened.



Are STD, STP, DSTP the same animal?

It seems you can take your pick: Submarine (or seabed) tailings may be "discharged", "dispersed" (never merely "dumped") but "disposal" is the commonest industry term. STP ( "placement") is a later euphemism, as is Deep Sea Tailing (sic) Placement (DSTP) [see Jones op cit]. They are all meant to imply that the toxic or negative impacts of tailings can be discounted, because they're being unproblematically siphoned out and permanently kept on the ocean floor. "Marine" is also being used instead of "submarine" (it was adopted in 1991 by Dames & Moore) which tends to suggest that some advocates aren't completely convinced they can keep a bad thing down for ever.

Who are the main advocates and practitioners of STD?

Dames & Moore, one of the world's biggest consultancy offering services to mining companies, has been solidly in favour of STD since at least 1991, when it was commissioned to prepare a report on tailings disposal options in the Philippines, for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Dames & Moore acted as consultants for the Minahasa gold mine in north Sulawesi (Indonesia) where it conducted a baseline oceanographic survey and designed, as well as supervised construction of the STD system [Dames & Moore website 1999] and for the Aurora gold project (PT Meares Soputan) in north Sulawesi (see Figures 1 and 2). The D&M team leader in this instance had also assisted in the social impact study of the Freeport-Rio Tinto operations at Grasberg, Papua (see above) where, though identifying room for improvement, it essentially acquitted the company of responsibility for unprecedented contamination of the Ajkwa river system.

Rescan Environmental Services of Canada has been associated with various design stages of some of the world's most notorious mining projects of recent years: including Omai and Marcopper. It constructed the STD pipeline for the Minahasa mine and prepared "conceptual designs" (its own term) for Batu Hijau, both projects managed by Newmont [Information from Rescan website 1999].

A director of Rescan, Professor D V Ellis (see above) has also worked as a consultant for Placer Dome of Canada, which is manager of the notorious Marcopper mine, operator of the Misima gold mine, the original owner of Fiji's Namosi prospect, and part-owner of the Lihir mine (through a stake in Vengold [see Forest Peoples' Programme et al "Undermining the forests" op cit]. Partly due to Ellis' influence and advocacy Placer has become the most powerful corporate advocate of STD (see Marcopper case study above). Another Canadian mining Multinational, INCO, in 1999 put forward STD as an option for dealing with tailings from its now-stalled Voisey's Bay nickel-cobalt project, and the company is likely to employ the method at its Goro nickel mine, should it move to commercial production (see above).

Golder Associates, the engineering consultancy which prepared the most important document yet that advocates STD, has a literally disastrous reputation at two major mine sites. It assisted in “capping” the failed Omai tailings dam in Guyana, for which it was cited by the Canadian lawyers’ group PRIO in 1996 as violating professional engineering standards [Minewatch memorandum, London 1996.] The same year, the Golder-constructed Porco tailings dam collapsed in Bolivia (see above). According to Thomas Siepelmeyer (who trained as a mining engineer), this dam was only two years old at the time – a fact which made Golder’s involvement particularly reprehensible [Minewatch ibid; see also Metals and Minerals Latin America December 18th 1996].

BHP of Australia in 1997 took over all assets of Highlands Gold, other than the Porgera mine, and set up Highlands Pacific, which has been pushing STD for the Ramu nickel-cobalt project (see case study above), as well as at the Woodlark Gold project in Milne Bay. BHP also holds the Gag island nickel prospect, off north-western West Papua, through Asia Nickel, and the Weda Bay nickel prospect in Halmahera - both putative employers of marine dumping.

The main US proponent of the practice is Newmont Gold. Parent company Newmont has a better reputation than Placer and BHP, for both its community programmes and environmental provisions. However, this reputation has been undermined by its recent record at two major Indonesian mines, Batu Hijau and Minahasa (q.v.) where its adoption of STD clearly violates the company's longstanding pledge to adopt the "strictest US environmental standards wherever [it] operates" [Southeast Asia Mining Letter August 26 1994].

Rio Tinto (Britain and Australia) employs STD at Lihir and in 1988 accepted the recommendations of a study commissioned from the Australian National University (ANU) to pipe tailings from its Panguna mine into the Empress Augusta bay - a move opposed by landowners, which helped trigger the "revolt" of 1988, leading to formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a bloody ten year war.

Has any administrative authority made STD illegal?

According to Dr Robert McCandless of EnviroCanada, both Canada and the US ban STD, but allow for special exemptions, an option which the US has never exercised. In 1994 the US Bureau of Mines (part of the Department of the Interior) carried out a series of case studies of submarine tailings disposal which concluded that - at least theoretically - STD could only be considered where a proposed disposal site had no history of "upwelling", because of the dangers of tailings rising to the surface [US Department of the Interior, Case studies of Submarine Tailings Disposal; Volume II - Worldwide case histories and screening criteria, Bureau of Mines 1994].

In the case of Canada, the signal legislation is the 1977 Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations (MMLER) which forbids submarine solid tailings deposition, but theoretically would allow liquid effluent disposal, if it complied with the limits set out in the MMLER. However, the only exemption to date has been that extended to the Kitsault mine (see above) which closed after one year in November 1982. In any event this decision was strongly criticised by a joint Senate-House oversight committee and it is highly doubtful whether either EnviroCanada or the Canadian public would permit any similar operation today. According to Dr McCandless such a submission "might not survive a court challenge, to say nothing of today's rigorous environmental assessment process". McCandless also points out that, if Canada were to permit STD, while the US continued to object, this would put Canada in breach of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which requires uniform application of environmental laws. [Email from McCandless to Minewatch Asia-Pacific and Down to Earth, London, June 7, 1999].

As already noted (see Figure 1) the US government credit and political risk insurance agency, OPIC, refused to insure the Lihir mine operated by Rio Tinto, on grounds that STD would violate treaties to which the US was a party. Although the full grounds for OPIC's decision have not been made public, it is believed that the agency relied partly on the 1972 International Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (aka the London Convention) and its 1996 Protocol. Inter alia this bans the deposition at sea of wastes from "man-made structures", though not specifically pipelines originating on land. Stephen Jones, a strong defender of STD, has quixotically claimed that such methods of disposal "...[do] not... constitute an act of dumping" under international law [S Jones, op cit 1999].

More than twenty years ago, the Philippine government rejected STD into the Lingayen Gulf, as a solution for the huge tailings contamination in the Bued and Agno river system [Dames and Moore Final Report : Detailed policy guidelines for mine tailings disposal, June 14 1991 op cit]. The Philippine DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) in 1997 refused a request by Placer Dome to use STD, following the Marinduque disaster (see Figure 1) on grounds that government regulations ruled it out in areas "considered to be environmentally critical" [Catherine Coumans, December 29 1998 op cit].

The Norwegian state body responsible for pollution control (Statens Forensningstilsyn, or SFT) is reportedly bucking the trend by proposing new legislation to "demand" that tailings be discharged into the sea [Harald Eraker, Norwatch, Oslo, email to Minewatch Asia Pacific, July 16 1999], in order to reduce the bio-availability (through oxygenisation) of heavy metals in the wastes.

Is there a direct relationship between STD and deep sea mining?

Coastal, continental shelf and sea bed dredging and mining have a long history - as do the problems of disposal of their wastes [see D W Ellis The need for exchange of Reclamation Information between Surface and Marine Mining Operations, paper delivered at National Symposium on Mining, Hydrology, Sedimentology and Reclamation, University of Kentucky, Lexington, December 1986].

To date, little public attention has been paid to the potentially huge social and environmental consequences of massive exploitation of the seabed, under the aegis of the United Nations Council for Law of the Sea. There is no doubt about the existence of unprecedented quantities (mostly as nodules) of manganese, cobalt and other strategic minerals within the EEZ (exclusive economic zones) of Pacific island nations. But there are major questions about their extraction and waste-disposal should they come onstream.

Among the countries which have permitted STD, Papua New Guinea stands out as having much bigger identified seabed mineral resources than those identified on land - though the two do not automatically equate with each other in terms of economically recoverable reserves. US institutions have long-established programmes investigating inter alia the disposal of tailings from oceanic (platform) mining operations, back to the seabed.[see for example Michael J Cruickshank, Ramona Kincaid, Harry J Olsen, "Marine minerals development in the Pacific Ocean", paper delivered to the Pacrim 90 Mining Congress, organised by AIMM, Australia, 1991]

July / November 2000

[This paper was researched and written by Roger Moody of Nostromo Research, London and commissioned by Down to Earth (DTE) and Minewatch Asia-Pacific (MWAP). The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the commissioning organisations. Reproduction, with acknowledgement to Nostromo Research, Down to Earth and Minewatch Asia-Pacific is welcomed and encouraged].