Mirador: a mine full of mirages

Amazon Rainforest

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China is investing in the massive Mirador mining project in Ecuador - at great risk to human life and the natural environment.

Imagine a tsunami of toxic waste, hundreds of millions of metric tons, containing mercury, arsenic, cyanide, acid and heavy metals cascading through the steeply inclined river system to reach the Amazon River.

When you make sixty thousand tons of toxic waste per day and you need to store it safely till the end of times, you do what the sun does to desert dwellers: you make a mirage. You fool people into believing that a solution is in sight.

That’s exactly what China’s government does in Ecuador, by investing in the massive Mirador mining project.

The mega-mine has estimated reserves of 5 million tons of copper, 700 tons of silver and 90 tons of gold. Digging it up leads to toxic waste than needs storage behind a dam.

Toxic cascade

Since 2007, experts say that present and proposed construction of dams to hold all the waste will inevitable collapse, as it recently did in Brazil with 100s of deaths as a first consequence.

In 2014, alternative plans were put forward and accepted by the Ecuadorian Government, but the risk remains extremely high. That is the opinion of Dr Steven Emerman, Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the World Mine Tailings Failure Database, who visited the site in November 2018.

A dam failure would amount to more than 100 deaths, major loss of fish or wildlife habitat and extreme losses affecting critical infrastructure or services.

Imagine a tsunami of toxic waste, hundreds of millions of metric tons, containing mercury, arsenic, cyanide, acid and heavy metals cascading through the steeply inclined river system to reach the Amazon River.

This will be a veritable nightmare of pollution and destruction. The speed of the toxic cascade is impressive. If the collapse occurred at a moment of high rainfall it would travel 88 kilometers in five hours.

Dam disaster

Ecuador’s first open pit mega-mine happens to be located in a hotbed of biodiversity: the Cordillera del Condor. If the Chinese state companies succeed, it will become one of the largest mine’s humanity has ever created.

The companies involved are the Tongling Non-Ferrous Metals Group joined and the China Railway Construction Corporation.

Dr Emerman noted that the first dam under construction was being built in a manner which did not comply with the Environmental Impact Study of 2014 and was being built at a “critical” angle, in engineering terms at the “edge of collapse”. This dam will be 63 meters tall.

The second dam in planning is to be 260 meters tall. The agreed plan is to build this dam with slopes which are steeper than generally used, thus creating a greater danger of collapse.

There are many ways how a dam disaster can be triggered. The dams could collapse from overtopping in flood conditions. Neither of the dams take a Probable Maximum Flood into account. Nor do they consider the Probable Maximum Earthquake.

The contents stored behind the 260-meter-tall dam will be “wet” by nature and therefore more susceptible to liquefaction. Building the foundations from what is known as “weak material” doesn’t help either.

Court case

Three of us are bringing a case before the Ecuadorian courts. Our lawyer Julio Prieto will give the legal standing and details, Dr Emerman will provide scientific evidence and this author will represent Nature itself.

The Ecuadorian Constitution is unique in giving rights for nature, meaning that anyone can go to court in the name of nature. We will use the precautionary principle in relation to grave threats to those constitutionally agreed Rights of Nature. 

We will ask for an injunction to halt the construction and to require a full review of the design and construction by an independent international panel of experts.

These Author

David Dene and Julio Prieto are United Nations’ experts in harmony with nature. Julio Prieto is also an Ecuadorean lawyer who became famous for representing 30,000 Indigenous people in Ecuador impacted by Chevron’s toxic oil waste and is also the author of a book about Rights of Nature for the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. Dr Steven Emerman is the owner of Malach Consulting, the environmental compiler and vice-chair of the board of directors of the World Mine Tailings Failure Database and an expert on the Mirador Mine tailings facilities.

More background on the Mirador Mine conflict in the Atlas of Environmental Justice (Spanish).

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