6. Mining in Europe

Despite millennia of mining, Europe still has metal deposits that are feasible for extraction. These include many of the metals that we need for the energy and digital transitions, such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths. Stepping up metal mining and processing within its borders would increase the EU’s security of supply. It would also shrink the ecological footprint of our metal consumption, thanks to EU environmental regulations and reduced intercontinental transport.

Still, metal mining comes at a price. Open-pit mining in particular affects biodiversity, which is already in serious decline in Europe. Toxic mining waste may pose a threat to river basins and drinking water resources.  Europe has not been spared from dam failures where the muddy mining waste caused widespread pollution. This is a price many Europeans are unwilling to pay. New mining projects often provoke civic protest.

Left-overs

One way to minimise the damage is to first look at the mines we already have, both active and inactive, before creating new scars in the landscape. In current mining operations, many valuable minerals that are mixed with the sought-after metals end up as waste. Unless costs, risks or laws (1) are prohibitive, mining operators should be obliged to utilise all the marketable minerals they dig up, instead of dumping all but one of them as left-over ‘tailings’. This obligation should extend to downstream processors. Thus, for instance, cobalt can be obtained as a companion metal of copper and nickel.

pickaxe

Rare earths as bycatch

In Sweden, state-owned
mining company LKAB is
planning to recover rare
earths and phosphorus
from the waste of its iron
mines in Kiruna and
Malmberget. LKAB wants
to have a new processing
facility ready in 2027. It
might meet some ten per
cent of the EU’s demand
for rare earths by then. (2)

 

The tailings from closed mines, which are sprawled all over Europe, also represent a source of scarce metals. Recovering those left-over metals can go hand in hand with the ecological rehabilitation of old mining sites.

Metals

Re-mining

The Penouta tin mine in the Spanish region of Galicia was closed in 1985, without rehabilitation. In 2018, the company Strategic Minerals Spain started exploiting the mining waste. It provides industrial minerals such as quartz and mica, but also metals: tin, tantalum and niobium. The first two are conflict metals (3), the latter two are on the EU’s list of critical raw materials. (4)
The processing plant in the Penouta mine uses no chemicals and has a closed-circuit water system. 
The rehabilitation plan for the site includes the spreading of topsoil and the sowing of plant seeds collected locally. (5) However, the leakage of heavy metals from the mine waste pond suggests that even re-mining is not without risk.

Recovery of raw materials from extractive and industrial wastes has ‘a remarkably high potential to contribute to a sustainable and secure supply’, according to the European Commission’s research centre. (6) But it cannot satisfy the projected demand for metals. Therefore, the Commission is pushing for new metal mines in Europe.

Set a high bar

Securing enough metals for Europe’s energy and digital transitions makes a case for new mining projects. However, to minimise the social and environmental trade-offs, we must set a high bar. All stakeholders should be involved from the beginning, first and foremost local and indigenous communities. Using their knowledge of the land and creating local benefits are key to obtaining their support. Natura 2000, the EU’s network of nature protection areas, should be off-limits to mining.

Metal mining must fully respect the relevant EU legislation, such as the Habitats and Birds Directives for biodiversity, the Water Framework Directive for clean water and the Extractive Waste Directive. (7) There is no ground for exemptions. Both EU law and international standards (8) call for the cleanest possible mining operations: minimal use of hazardous and fossil-based chemicals, a closed water loop, maximal removal of toxic substances, minimal waste and optimal restoration of biodiversity. Also, the EU should task its metal mining sector to become climate-positive within a decade, by switching to zero-emission machinery and locking up atmospheric CO2 in remaining waste minerals wherever this is feasible and safe. (9) Finally, mining corporations must be made to pay a fair compensation for the appropriation of common resources. (10) Metal mining in the EU should be exemplary, pushing up global standards.

Having massive amounts of soil and rock displaced within our borders instead of in far-away countries would confront us Europeans with the downside of our hunger for metals. There is some climate justice in that. It might make us think twice about our lavish consumption of joules and bytes. (11)

Footnotes

Further viewing

Lucy Crane (Cornish Lithium), 'Mining our way to a low carbon future' Afspelen op YouTube

Further reading

Juho Heikkilä, Mining operations taxed lightly in Finland, 2021
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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