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Column: Europe’s green agreement must get around anti-mining roadblock
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Column: Europe’s green agreement must get around anti-mining roadblock

A man gestures as environmental activists block the E-75 highway in protest against Rio Tinto’s plans to open a new lithium mine. This was in Belgrade (Serbia), December 11, 2021. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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LONDON (Reuters), Dec 16 – Protesters marched in Serbia on Saturday. It was the third consecutive weekend that protestors marched and blocked roads against the government’s push for its mining sector development.

Opposition groups have united around one project, Rio Tinto’s (RIO.L), proposed lithium mine in Jadar Valley.

The lithium in Portugal’s Serra d’Arga mountain is also the target for environmental resistance. Five local mayors are leading the charge. Demonstrations in OctoberTo protest a mine site.

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Opponents of the Rovina Valley copper mine, which is being built in Romania, have gone one step further. BuyMining Watch Romania says that parcels of land are strategically located within the project development area.

The European Union (EU) has 19 metal “mining conflict” but does not include Balkan countries such as Serbia. Research paperPublished last year by The Geographical Society of Finland

It’s a problem because Europe’s Green Deal will be driven primarily by metals like copper and lithium, and policy-makers want to see more of them being produced locally.


The European Commission placed responsible and sustainable extraction at the core of the bloc’s green mineral policy.

However, Europe’s environment credentials were harshly criticized at a Dec. 2-related meeting. Public hearingof the European Parliament.

Dr Steven H. Emerman stated that the claim in a Nov. 24, parliamentary resolution on critical material that mining in the EU is subjected to the highest environmental standards and social standards “is false in theory and not true in practice”.

Dr Emerman does not fit the mold of an eco-warrior. He is a geophysics specialist with degrees from Cornell University and Princeton Universities. He has 31 years of teaching experience and 70 peer reviewed publications.

He is also the Chair of the U.S. Society on Dams Body of Knowledge Subcommittee and has a formidable expertise on tailings Dams, where mine waste is stored.

His testimony at the hearing highlighted several instances of suboptimal dam planning and maintenance.

He stated that the Spanish saturated dam risk is “equivalent in size to an annual round Russian roulette.”

Portugal’s lithium mine project includes a design for a tailings dam at 193 metres high that is “highly experimental” as well as an example of “reckless creativity”.

A copper project in Spain is planning an 81-metre tall dam on a steep slope, less than 200 meters above a village. Dr Emerman stated that such a move would be illegal in Brazil. Ecuador and China. China even has a one-kilometre boundary between a tailings reservoir and a population centre.

He stated that he has not spoken against mining but warned European policy-makers against opening new mines “without a convincing evidence that there will be no adverse effects on human lives or the environment.”


Despite the EU’s public commitment to clean mining, the process of aligning regulations across 27 nations is painfully slow in comparison to the rush to invest in vital mineral supply chains.

The EU adopted the Mineral Waste Directive after two tailings dam breaches in Spain in 1998, and in Romania two-years later.

Its 2017 progress report showed that four member states hadn’t yet correctly transposed the directive into their statute books by November 2016. The reporting system was not fit for purpose, and there weren’t any guidelines on inspections.

Although the technical guidelines for inspections were introduced in 2005, they were only implemented last year.

The second largest source of waste in Europe is mining and quarrying, which accounted for 26.3% in 2018. Most is stored in either tailings dams or storage ponds. This is the most visible reminder of how dirty mining is.

A potentially fatal one. The catastrophic 2015 and 2019 Brazil tailings dam disasters have changed public perceptions about mining.

Old abandoned mines leaking contaminated water into local eco-systems are a further problem. Each of these sites adds fuel to the eco warrior fires.


How can we make the circle of needing more metals and assuaging growing opposition to mining them?

The EU should urgently implement its own mining waste directive.

It must be seen if it wants to boast its green mining credentials.

Existing and planned tailings dams should be carefully studied. A failure of a tailings dam on European soil would be a major blow to both Europe’s mining industry and policy-makers.

Europe could also follow the United States’ lead and map mine waste data.

This doubles the purpose of identifying potential mineral riches and identifying sites that require remediation.

Tailings contain elements once thought to be useless by-products that are now listed as critical minerals. Even current tailings dams could contain minerals that are not considered essential, but might one day be.

However, the commercial viability of such urban mining operations is not guaranteed if the site is managed well over the long-term. This may include the reconstruction of unsafe dams and extensive cleaning up of the surrounding areas.

The EU is spending money to stimulate investment in new mining capacity and processing capacity. Some of this money could be used to invest in old mine sites.

The possibility of discovering useful metallics is not the only benefit. However, the restoration of the sites could help erase some of the unhelpful reminders that the industry’s contaminated history.

The government could offer a quid pro quo to clean up abandoned sites and ensure the long-term stewardship for any waste storage facilities.

If the EU is to convince its citizens of its green credentials they will need to get involved in mining.

The author is a columnist for Reuters.

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Barbara Lewis Editing

Our Standards The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

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