Cleaning up the mess with nanotechnology
Several years ago, I was in Perth, Australia talking to an engineer about a problem his company had.
He had to solve a problem with tailings ponds at an aluminum plant that had been producing aluminum for quite some time, and had been sold.
The problem with tailing ponds in any industry is typically the condensed amount of toxins. In the aluminum tailings ponds, the issue was not simply the toxic components, but the fact that the solution is extremely alkaline.
We talked about how nanotechnology could perhaps play a role. In South America, some leading nanotechnologists had developed a process to remove arsenic and cyanide from tailings ponds, which is a big problem for Canada.
However, in Australia, we extrapolated that based on the science, the nano particles of iron should be able to attract some of the toxins from the ponds, which could then be recovered and treated, leaving the ponds much cleaner.
The engineer agreed that it was probably the best solution. In fact, it was probably the only solution on the table.
The problem then? The budget required to clean the liquid ponds.
The discussion that ensues must surely be who is responsible for the clean up in these situations?
The fact is, corporations are typically in a relationship with the government in the form of a licence fee, duties, franchise, whatever you decide to call it.
Similarly, indigenous communities often become involved based on their approval for a slice of the pie. But when it comes to pay for the clean of the environment, multiple sets of hands go up, with their owners saying it is not my problem or they point the finger at the next person.
In many instances, once an area has been mined, the gross proceeds from the mining operation or extraction operation do not equate to the cost of reparation.
It poses the questions why would we start in the first place?
If governments approved it and indigenous communities signed in to a business relationship, whose job is it to ensure we clean up after we have extracted and made a profit?
Regardless of the questions, in this instance, the potential to spend more than $200 million on a clean up program was not going to work.
So we asked what the solution was.
The engineer leaned on the table, looked us in the eye and said, we only have one solution; for the next 200 years, dilute the ponds slowly and carefully and release a safer and smaller amount of material into the ocean.
In my mind, that is not a solution and we should be held accountable to cleaning up our own mess.
Perhaps in the next conversation requiring the dumping of toxins into a lake, the solution will be discussed before the budget and the appropriate funds allocated before production starts.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.