This is 2 months old but I am doubtful any of you are familiar with the story. I was not until yesterday.
Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, decided to open a new copper mine in Mongolia. That nation of course has a long tradition of nomadic herding and is also arid. That means those herders rely on scarce fresh water supplies. Rio Tinto promised they would use only deep aquifers that would have no impact on the herders’ water. You may not be surprised to discover that the company lied.
When companies build exploration wells that touch different water sources, like those outside Oyu Tolgoi, they must be sealed with impermeable material. This ensures water from a shallower source cannot cascade into a deeper one.
The contractor didn’t build those seals at Oyu Tolgoi’s wells. The construction plan shows only gravel where an impermeable barrier should be.
A “technological mistake,” Oyu Tolgoi’s vice president called it.
At least five other wells were cascading too, a specialist brought in by the government later confirmed. Rio Tinto blames its drilling contractor, RPS Aquaterra, saying the company constructed the wells incorrectly.
But Rio Tinto should have been able to adequately oversee the work of its contractors, said mining expert Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on natural resource protection.
“What they did completely defeats the purpose of what was committed to and agreed to,” he said. “It is really bad performance.”
There are no public scientific studies or data that show how much water was lost.
White pointed to a company report that says the cascading does not have a “measurable impact” on the shallow aquifers upon which the herders rely.
Even so, the shallow and deep aquifers now appear to be connected, according to an independent 2013 audit. That can cause the contamination of the freshwater aquifer if the cascade reverses, a problem that’s potentially as serious as water loss.
Herders like Khayandorj said that since the exploration wells went in, plants that had survived years of drought have died.
“Yes, there were two to three years of severe drought,” he said, sitting in his yurt over bowls of salty milk tea. “But right after they set up those wells, families had to move away because of changes in the grass.”
Two wells he once used now are dry. He told Oyu Tolgoi, which has promised to find a new water source for any herder with a dry well. The company has dug several new, deeper wells for other herders. But in his case, the efforts didn’t work.
“They came. They dug with their machinery,” he said. “Nothing. It’s dry.”
Khayandorj and his family spent the entire summer, usually a time of rest for nomads, setting up temporary camp, constantly on the move for sufficient grass and water for their herds.
The nomads have suffered other affronts during Rio Tinto’s mine development. The company replaced a natural spring that was a place of worship with what looks like a man-made drainage ditch. It also dug up sacred elm trees, according to the US Agency for International Development.
Lkhamdoorov Battsengel’s family, along with 10 others, used to live and graze their herds on pastureland of the Turquoise Hill, as the area is known. His family alone had 600 sheep and goats, 100 camels and dozens of horses and cows. When the mining company fenced in its land, it forced the families to relocate.
The land where Battsengel resettled couldn’t sustain his herds. He is down to 100 animals in total.
He’s now started a nonprofit environmental organization called Gobi Soil to influence Oyu Tolgoi’s environmental policies. It has banded with bigger nonprofits to file formal complaints with the International Finance Corporation, which is considering a $1.4 billion financing package to develop the mine further.
“We still have time to turn things back,” he said.
Battsengel now supports his family by collecting trash for Oyu Tolgoi.
This basic story takes place around the world, especially in poor nations as multinational corporations seek mineral rights in areas with few meaningful environmental regulations and little chance of real consequences if they violate them. The impact on the world’s poor is devastating.