Infrastructure Drives Development in the Brazilian Amazon: Highway –> Hydroelectric Plant –> Gold Mine

Big changes are happening in the Brazilian Amazon along a stretch of the Xingu River known as the Volta Grande (Big Bend), where it takes a detour to the south before turning back north to flow into the Amazon River. The region has experienced rapid growth and deforestation following the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR 230 ) in 1972, as this pair of images illustrates:

1988:  Satellite imagery showing the Volta Grande region along the Xingu River in Brazil’s Para state. Tendrils of deforestation reveal settlement reaching out into the rainforest along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, built in 1972. Site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project is marked for reference. Compare with 2016 image below of the same area.

 

2016:  The same area as shown above in 1988. Considerable deforestation has occurred in the 18-year interval.

Small-scale gold mining has also occurred in this area over the past few decades, peaking in the 1980s. But now a major hydroelectric project, that became operational in 2015 and is still under construction, may be paving the way for a multinational mining company, Belo Sun of Canada, to propose a massive open-pit gold-mining operation.  Some local residents, already negatively impacted by the hydro project, are wary of the gold mining proposal: “I have seen mining companies elsewhere, they take all the wealth and leave craters. We have to think about it ten times over before accepting their projects.”

The mining operation is temporarily on hold, so there’s nothing yet to see.  But Google Earth does have high-resolution satellite imagery showing the construction of the hydroelectric project that may be a key part of the business plan for this mining project.

2014: High-resolution panchromatic (black and white) satellite imagery of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project under construction on Brazil’s Xingu River. Project became operational in 2015. Compare with 2010 image below of the same area.

 

2010: High-resolution satellite imagery showing the site of the future Belo Monte hydroelectric project. Compare with 2016 image above of same area.

As we can see from the detail below, showing a line of trucks at work on the dam in 2014, this is a huge project. And the development sequence illustrated so clearly in this area shows that one big project begets another — from highway, to hydro, to mine.

Detail from 2014 satellite imagery showing trucks at work on part of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project.

The influx of people that results is inexorably transforming the Amazon rainforest.

Into… Ohio?

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tailings Dam Failures at Metal Mines Around the World

Catastrophic mine spills have been in the news frequently enough that we are devoting a few articles to cover some of the problems plaguing existing mines and posing serious concerns for new and proposed mines like Pebble in Alaska, Red Chris in British Columbia, and NorthMet in Minnesota. In this post we’re only covering impoundment failures from metal mines and ore processing facilities (we’ll get to coal slurry and coal ash later, and we’ve already written about abandoned and inactive mines).
 
The litany of mine impoundment disasters around the world is a grim one. This year saw the Fundão tailings dam failure that killed at least 13 downstream of the Samarco iron mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil. 
 
 
Above: The village of Bento Rodrigues after the Fundao dam burst at the Samarco Mine. Image Credit: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images
 

In August 2014 it was a 24,400,000 cubic meter spill from the Mt. Polley gold mine in British Columbia, Canada into the headwaters of the Fraser River (below) only a few weeks before a run of salmon would make their way upstream. However, on Dec.17, 2015, the provincial government announced there would be no criminal charges or fines assessed against Imperial Metals for the disaster. Al Hoffman, British Columbia’s chief inspector of mines stated, “Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find.”

 
 
Above: Mine waste and debris enter Quesnel Lake five miles downstream of the failed impoundment at Imperial Metal’s Mt. Polley gold/copper mine. Image Credit: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press 
If a mine can discharge 10 million cubic meters of polluted water and toxic mine waste into the environment, turning a quiet stream into a moonscape, and yet not have broken any rules, one must wonder if the rules and/or regulators are up to the task.  

Looking further back to 2010, a tailings dam failed at an alumina plant in Hungary, killing 10, injuring 150, and turning the “blue” Danube River a sickly, toxic red. A slight silver-lining, however, is that the downstream town of Devecser has risen from the sludge to become a model of green living and sustainable energy.
 
An aerial photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 shows the ruptured wall of a red sludge reservoir of the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in Kolontar, 160 km (100 mi) southwest of Budapest, Hungary. Note the excavators at bottom to give a sense of scale. Image Credit: AP Photos/MTI, Gyoergy Varga

 

Unfortunately, this list only recounts some of the more notorious disasters that reached the international press. For a more complete record of significant mine tailings dam failures, the World Information Service on Energy has complied a list of over 80 major non-coal spills since the 1960’s.   

Yet every time a new mine is proposed, even when the dam would be taller than the Washington Monument, we are reassured that this time we have the technology right, this time the dam won’t fail, and this time the environment will be left just as it was before we mined it. There are techniques, such dry-stacking, which are safer than conventional wet-tailings impoundments, but they are also more expensive. 

So unless the public and regulators demand that mines employ better practices, it seems we will have to keep reliving this story, year after year.


Stay tuned for the next part of this series, impoundment failures from coal mines in Appalachia.

Rising Waste Levels Observed at Samarco Prior to Disaster

Satellite imagery collected in the months leading up to the catastrophic Samarco mine disaster on November 5 in Minas Gerais, Brazil reveal a substantial increase in the amount of water and mine waste being stored behind the now failed Fundão Dam. Images taken by the satellite Earth-imaging company Planet Labs two months before the dam collapse show that Samarco, co-owned by BHP Billiton and Vale SA, were acting on their plans to raise the height of the dam. Compared to 2013 Astrium imagery in Google Earth, additional structures appear at the top of the dam, trees have been cleared and roads have been cut to accommodate the heightened level of waste in the reportedly 55 million cubic meter impoundment:

On the left side of the image you can see that by September 2015 the fluid level had risen substantially since May 2013, filling valleys upstream of the dam. In the center, you can see the growth of the dam as new contours are added, presumably to raise the crest of the dam. According to our calculations, between May 2013 and September 2015 the surface area of the impoundment increased by approximately 100 acres (406,000 sq. meters).

Though the comparison is not nearly so stark, here is another image collected by Planet Labs on October 2, side-by-side with the same September 25 image seen above. The images were collected at different times of day, so features that were in the shadows on one image will be visible in the other:


Mining and Civil Engineers – See anything notable about developments at the Fundão Dam? Leave a comment below. 

[Updated] Satellites Reveal Extent of Samarco Mine Disaster in Brazil

[Updated on Nov. 16 with additional satellite images]
On Thursday, Nov. 5 in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, two mine waste impoundments at the Samarco iron mine failed, burying the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues and sending 62 million cubic meters of toxic sludge downstream – impacting villages and rivers up to 400 kilometers away. So far the death toll is currently at nine, with 19 missing and 80% of the buildings in Bento Rodrigues destroyed. The mine, operated jointly by BHP/Billington and Vale SA, had increased output by 37% over the past year in spite of warnings from an independent report that the dam had design flaws that could lead to just such a failure.


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Image: Christophe Simon AFP/Getty Images
 

Digital Globe, a commercial satellite image provider, has acquired imagery of the aftermath, which is currently being analyzed by volunteers at the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT). If you are familiar with Open Street Map, you can give them a hand. Below we have pulled together some of the before-and-after visualizations put together by regional data transparency and open mapping group– Codigo Urbano
 Above is a broad view of one of the failed impoundments and the former town of Bento Rodrigues, population ~600. Below is a closer view of a part of the town that was buried under the toxic sludge. 
 Finally, on the Landsat 8 imagery we’ve complied below, you can see just how far downstream the impacts go – turning the river banks orange. High levels of toxicity have been detected in water samples taken 400 kilometers downstream.


For reference, here is an annotated version of the “after” image.

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Additionally, a Pleiades satellite operated by Airbus collected the following hi-resolution imagery of the disaster area. 

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See more at – www.disastercharter.org.

And to compare Landsat imagery, side-by-side and close-up, click the image below. 

 

A little more than a year ago we saw a similar disaster unfold at the Mt. Polley Gold Mine in Canada. Yet, every new mine proposal (like the Pebble Mine, currently on hold but proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska) assures us that modern technology and responsible mining practices will make these disasters a thing of the past. If that’s the case, why are we having déjà vu all over again? 

Damage from Gold Mining in the Amazon – Madre de Dios, Peru

We used to think only big commercial mining operations could have a significant environmental impact.  These images gave us a schooling.  The cumulative impact from many small, artisanal mining operations can result in just as big a mess as a conventional open-pit mine.  As reported in The Guardian and captured on video by the Carnegie Institution for Science, mercury contamination from illegal and unregulated gold-mining sites in the Madre de Dios region of Peru is flowing downstream and polluting the water sources that indigenous people depend on:

Aerial view of many small-scale artisanal gold-mining operations in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. Source: The Guardian.

A Landsat-8 satellite image taken in April 2013 clearly shows the landscape disruption associated with mining activity, spanning an area over 11 miles long and up to 4 miles wide. Sediment-laden runoff in this area of high rainfall (it is a rainforest, after all) is rushing uncontrolled into adjacent rivers, coloring them pale muddy brown:

 

Landsat-8 satellite image taken in April 2013, showing landscape impact of illegal gold mining operations and sediment-laden runoff in adjacent rivers – a harbinger of the mercury contamination affecting indigenous people downstream. Intact forest is dark green. Land cleared for agriculture or by logging is pale green.

 

Measurement of the area impacted by mining; this does not include adjacent areas of deforestation (pale green) that probably indicate rapid settlement and farming accompanying the influx of miners.

Stepping back a bit, a higher-elevation view clearly shows the downstream transport of sediment — possibly contaminated with mercury — from the mining area:

Vertical overview of mining area and downstream transport of pale brown sediment (north is to the right in this view).

 

Panoramic view toward the north, overlooking the active gold-mining area (foreground) and showing sediment runoff downstream. Landsat-8 satellite image taken in April, 2013.

Landslide at Bingham Canyon Mine – Satellite Image

The spectacular landslide that shook the earth at the Bingham Canyon copper-gold mine in Utah on April 10 has been captured in an equally spectacular high-resolution satellite image taken on April 18.  The image below is a humble reduced-resolution version; to see the real thing in all it’s lovely detail, check out this week’s WorldView Report from DigitalGlobe:

High-resolution satellite image taken April 18, 2013, showing landslide in Bingham Canyon mine near Salt Lake City, Utah. Source: WorldView Report from DigitalGlobe.

This issue of WorldView also has an image of the fertilizer facility — and surrounding neighborhood — near Waco, Texas that was leveled in a deadly explosion, caught here on a cell-phone video.  Watch this in full-screen mode to get a feel for how catastrophic this was — and maybe a new appreciation for the lifesaving value of good zoning laws.

Landslide at Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah

If you haven’t seen photos of the massive landslide that struck Utah’s Bingham Canyon copper-gold mine on April 10, check out the story and accompanying photo gallery at the Deseret News, and these spectacular photos at the Kennecott Utah Copper page on Facebook.

 

Aerial shot of landslide in Bingham Canyon copper-gold mine near Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy Kennecott Utah Copper via Facebook.

Happily, nobody was hurt in this astonishing incident; mine operators had plenty of warning this section of the pit was failing. But some of the massive mining equipment was damaged, and mining activity was halted for a few days.  Check out these giant mining trucks, looking like scattered Matchbox toys under the pile of debris:

Mining trucks partly buried by landslide. Photo courtesy Deseret News.

Here’s an aerial overview of the mine and landslide.  The mining pit is about2-1/2 miles across at it’s widest, and more than half a mile deep:

Aerial view of landslide. Photo courtesy Deseret News.

I’ve attempted to re-create the view above using the pre-landslide imagery in Google Earth:

Pre-landslide view from Google Earth.

Stepping back a bit, it’s interesting to see how close this mining operation is to residential neighborhoods on the western outskirts of Salt Lake City; especially the 9,000 acre (14 square mile) tailings impoundment located on the banks of Great Salt Lake about 15 miles north of the mining pit.  Earthworks details some of the environmental problems and public health risks in this brief report [PDF].

You can explore this area with high-resolution imagery from 2010 in Google Earth and Google Maps.  And here is a super-detailed view of the area that failed from Bing Maps — maybe you mining engineers out there can identify the fault or other structural weakness that lead to the failure.  Let us know if you see anything interesting!

North is to the right in the pre-landslide Google Earth images below:

 

Panoramic overview of the Bingham Canyon mining operation, looking west. Salt Lake City suburbs fill the lower third of the view. Great Salt Lake at upper right.
Vertical view from 2010 imagery showing the active mining pit.

 

Vertical view from 2010 imagery showing the 9,000-acre tailings impoundment.  Note residential area at lower left, between SkyTruth logo and the impoundment.