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It's hard to think small in Alaska. The largest of the United States is home to North America's highest mountain range. It's a place where undammed rivers run more than 1000 kilometers, glaciers collapse into the ocean, and polar bears roam.
Daniel Schindler, however, is here hunting for something the size of a grain of rice. Crouching in tiny Allah Creek, hemmed in by alders and smeared in blood, he grasps a rotting sockeye salmon carcass and nearly decapitates the fish with a stroke of a carving knife. With tweezers, he delves into a cavity of creamy goo tucked behind the brain and plucks out a sliver of what looks like bone. It is an otolith, a bit of calcium carbonate that sits within the inner ear and acts like an internal gyroscope, helping the fish orient its movements.
Schindler, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, holds the white fleck up to the sunlight. "For some reason, picking otoliths is a very therapeutic activity," he says, as a cluster of scarlet-sided sockeye thrashes by in the shin-deep water, frantically searching for their spawning grounds.
Chemical isotopes trapped in the otolith, which forms layers like tree rings as it grows, tell the story of the salmon's birthplace and life. Between 2 and 5 years ago, the sockeye hatched in this creek, a tiny corner of the sprawling network of freshwater lakes and streams along Alaska's Bristol Bay. The fish headed out to sea and finally returned to its birthplace to spawn and die.
Over the past 2 decades, Schindler and colleagues have used otoliths and other data sources to illuminate how Bristol Bay consistently sees tens of millions of returning fish, year after year, making it one of the world's most productive and lucrative salmon fisheries. The work has become a classic among ecologists, earning more than 1000 citations. Now, it has thrust Schindler into one of the biggest environmental battles of the early 21st century. A mining company wants to extract copper and gold from a massive ore deposit beneath headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's main salmon rivers. The Pebble Mine could become one of the world's biggest mineral producers, with an open pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon and vast infrastructure and waste piles that would stretch for kilometers.
Opponents of the project, including Native Alaskan, fishing, and environmental groups, have long argued that the mine's short-term economic benefits would pale in comparison with the long-term risks to Bristol Bay's salmon runs, including toxic runoff and habitat destruction. Critics have seized on Schindler's science to help make their case, and in 2014 the findings helped persuade then-President Barack Obama's administration to move to block the mine. But this year, President Donald Trump's administration signaled it might allow the project as part of its efforts to encourage development.
The struggle has put Schindler at the center of the storm. The son of a scientist who also played a high-profile role in seminal environmental battles, Schindler inherited his father's combativeness. The younger Schindler has collaborated with mine opponents and spoken out at public hearings. His views have gotten him kicked off a panel advising the mining company. And he hasn't hesitated to criticize the Trump administration's efforts to evaluate the Pebble Mine's environmental impacts, calling a key study a joke. Doing so has made him a hero to antimine activists and a target for mine supporters, who say he has wandered far from his area of expertise.
At the heart of both his research and his advocacy lies this insight: Even in this land of superlatives, things as small as a tiny creek matter. The otolith he just extracted records one fish's sojourn. He sticks it onto the back of his left glove for safekeeping, drops the remains into the water, and reaches for the next carcass. Ultimately, he and others will collect otoliths from some 8000 fish. "A lot of therapy," he quips.
IN 1968, when Schindler was 4 months old, his crib was a wooden box used to ship a sonar echo sounder to a research station in remote western Ontario province in Canada. There, his father, limnologist Dave Schindler, was just starting an innovative project using 46 lakes as giant laboratories to study aquatic ecology.
The young Schindler came of age among the lakes, spending summers with scientists engaged in groundbreaking work. Over 2 decades, research at the Canadian government's Experimental Lakes Area helped reveal how phosphorus pollution and acid rain damaged freshwater ecosystems. Dave Schindler's work earned him the first Stockholm Water Prize in 1991, a sort of Nobel Prize for water researchers.
Before reaching his teens, Daniel Schindler knew how to handle a canoe and a motorboat. He and his two sisters spent summer days roaming the woods and handing sample-collection bottles to their father.
Daniel Schindler also saw how science can underpin activism. His father testified before various government bodies, facing off against the detergent industry about phosphates, and the electrical industry over coal-fired power plant emissions. In the early 2000s, Dave Schindler turned his attention to the environmental impacts of extracting oil from Canada's tar sands. He once served as the scientific expert on a tour with rock star Neil Young, who was campaigning against tar sands extraction.
"Both of us would prefer to do our own things in some remote area and not be scrutinized," says Dave Schindler, who lives in the Canadian Rockies near Radium Hot Springs. But, "You just feel, nobody's speaking up; I've got to speak up."
THIS PAST SUMMER, from the top of Church Mountain, Daniel Schindler could see the two arms of Lake Nerka reaching toward the horizon, framed by steep peaks. The only sign of humans were his field camp's barebones cabins. Schindler has spent 23 summers here, much of that time chasing salmon through interconnected lakes gouged by glaciers. "I'm here because I love it," he declares.
The landscape is vast. It's also just a sliver of the habitat that produces Bristol Bay's salmon runs. Nine large rivers drain watersheds covering an area the size of Virginia, virtually devoid of humans save for the occasional fishing lodge and native village. Over the past 4 decades, an average of nearly 40 million salmon have returned to the bay each year. (By comparison, it's a good year when 3.5 million fish return to the Columbia River, the largest salmon river in the lower 48 states.) Most are sockeye, which spend their first year or two in freshwater and then head out to the North Pacific Ocean for 1 to 3 years before returning to reproduce. The deluge of fish draws more than 2000 commercial fishing boats, fueling a salmon economy worth about $300 million a year. Bristol Bay accounts for nearly half of all sockeye caught in the world.
For Schindler, this is one enormous laboratory. "I'm motivated to understand, how does this landscape work? What are the important features?"
Every year, he and his students track salmon returns by tallying dead and live fish in each 200-meter stretch of more than 30 streams. They net fish at creek mouths to see how many are scarred by nets. They track water temperatures, stream flows, nutrient levels, bear feeding, and myriad other clues to the intricate relationships between salmon and this place.
By now, he knows when the first salmon are likely to arrive in more than two dozen creeks. He can explain how nitrogen and carbon move through the streams, helping fuel the entire ecosystem. He can even tell you in which streams salmon carcasses have a bouquet of garlic, which of strong cheese, and which just stink of rotting fish.
Yet there's always a surprise. In 2018, nearby Lake Beverley, which usually hosts modest spawning, unexpectedly filled with fish. The lake accounted for an estimated 13% of the global sockeye catch that year. That variability underlies one of the key insights by Schindler and colleagues: The resilience and productivity of Bristol Bay's salmon population is due partly to a smorgasbord of habitats across a huge system.
Sockeye spawn everywhere, Schindler notes: in lakes, rivers, tiny spring-fed streams, and rocky creeks emerging from melting snowbanks. In a 2010 paper in Nature, he and co-authors used years of fish counts to show that even though annual fish numbers fluctuate dramatically in individual streams or river systems, the overall numbers in Bristol Bay hold remarkably steady. That's because, most years, some waters somewhere are producing salmon even when others aren't. The researchers dubbed that resilience the portfolio effect—a nod to the financial strategy of putting money into a variety of investments to guard against a downturn in a single one.
The otoliths add detail to the picture. As fish grow, the rings in those small "stones" trap chemicals from the surrounding environment—a signature that can vary from stream to stream. Schindler and others recently used the ratio of two strontium isotopes in sockeye and Chinook otoliths to figure out where the fish in one Bristol Bay river system originated. The results showed that the dominant source of salmon moved around the watershed from year to year, with some productive areas declining as others surged. Some streams might warm up in certain years, dampening salmon survival, Schindler explains. Low flows might keep salmon from reaching spawning grounds. Diseases, landslides, predators, a hard freeze, and ocean conditions can all take a toll.
This summer, the researchers here see that variation at play. A creek near the camp had once filled with 80,000 salmon. Then water levels in a spring-fed section fell, and this year fewer than 10,000 appear. A few kilometers down the lake, a swarm of salmon noses at the shoreline, trying to reach another creek. But they are out of luck: Winter storms have plugged the stream's mouth with a wall of gravel.
Then there are places such as Allah Creek. This year, the stream fills with fish, even as it runs so shallow that salmon backs jut from the water as they sprint from the lake toward its first deep pool. The forest has come alive in response to the spawning. The air hums with carrion flies. Glaucous-winged gulls cluster on the beach, waiting for the next fresh carcass.
Schindler and his assistant, Eli Fournier, an undergraduate at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, wade upstream, counting salmon. Pink eggs dot the streambed, like pearls from a broken necklace. Other fish—arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout—gorge on the eggs. Signs of grizzly bears are everywhere. Bites mar salmon carcasses. The supply is so plentiful that bears often eat just the fat-filled brains and humps. "Bear kitchens," where the grass is mashed flat and carpeted with fish bones, line the stream. The researchers punctuate their walks with loud calls of "Heyyyyy, bear!" to avoid surprising feasting bruins.
For bears and other animals that feed on fish, the variability from stream to stream is a boon. In one stream, spawning can start in early July, whereas in another it's mid-August. That range expands the peak feeding season, when bears must store enough energy to survive the coming winter. Computer models suggest bears can forage as much as 75% longer when the timing of runs is more spread out, Schindler says.
The portfolio effect also benefits people, by sustaining salmon numbers in the bay. If all the streams varied in step, Schindler and colleagues calculated, overall salmon numbers would fluctuate so wildly that managers would need to close fishing every 2 to 3 years—10 times more often than they do now.
After nearly 3 hours splashing up Allah Creek, the final count is 3429 live and 1917 dead sockeye salmon. And one very live grizzly startled midmeal.
IF NORTHERN DYNASTY MINERALS, based in Vancouver, Canada, has its way, a piece of the landscape will be transformed. Several versions of the Pebble Mine have emerged in company proposals and studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C. Under the most expansive scenarios, it would become the world's biggest gold producer and one of the top 10 copper mines, yielding up to 24 million tons of copper and 1400 tons of gold over its lifetime. An open pit covering 18 square kilometers would be the largest in North America. Infrastructure would include 125 kilometers of road and humanmade lakes full of toxic mine wastes covering an area nearly the size of New York City's Manhattan island. It could employ more than 1000 people during regular operations and bring in revenues of $300 billion to $500 billion, according to an EPA study.
Even that massive operation would be dwarfed by the immense Alaskan landscape. Constructing a smaller version of the mine, for example, would touch on streams draining less than 1% of the land surrounding Bristol Bay, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But mine opponents fear that once roads and other infrastructure are built, the mine could expand and surrounding mining claims could become viable. And Schindler notes that even a single mine could have big impacts. It would straddle two of Bristol Bay's watersheds. One drains into Lake Iliamna, Alaska's biggest, which has produced about one-fifth of the bay's sockeye salmon over the past 2 decades. The other feeds the Nushagak River, which has produced an average of 6.5% of sockeye populations.
"People have the general viewpoint that Alaska's so big that there's no way we could really screw it up," Schindler says. But that, he says, is the same attitude people in the Pacific Northwest once voiced as rivers there were dammed and developed. Today, that region's salmon runs have plummeted to a trickle, kept on life support at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2014, Obama's EPA took the unusual step of announcing it planned to veto Northern Dynasty's expected application for a federal permit needed to fill wetlands and streams, effectively killing the project. The agency pointed to a host of hazards: tens of kilometers of streams and tributaries destroyed, disruption of water flows, and the risk of stream pollution from copper—a potent aquatic poison—stirred up by mining. If a tailings dam failed in the earthquake-prone region, contaminated waste could pour down a nearby river. Even a smaller version of the mine, the agency declared, "jeopardizes the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem."
The portfolio effect underpinned those concerns. Though the mine would touch only a small percentage of the overall system, and even a catastrophic failure wouldn't reach most watersheds, agency scientists feared that losing even some pieces could undermine the whole system. What would happen in years when salmon populations in other streams went bust, and damaged streams weren't there to take up the slack?
Schindler's work "was the most influential [research] in terms of how we approached Bristol Bay," says Phil North, an aquatic ecologist who headed EPA's Bristol Bay work before leaving the agency in 2013. In other words: Small things matter.
Trump's election, however, as well as the later election of a pro-mining Alaskan governor, has given the Pebble Mine new life. In 2017, the company proposed a mine with a smaller footprint and more environmental safeguards, which it says would address EPA's concerns. For example, the company says that after 2 decades of mining it would dump the tailings into the pit and cover them with water, eliminating the need for storage ponds.
Several federal agencies, now led by Trump appointees, have greeted the new plan more warmly. In February, the Army Corps, which controls federal wetlands permits, issued a draft environmental impact statement, finding the project would cause no population-level damage to salmon. In July, EPA withdrew its earlier veto proposal, saying its previous conclusion was outdated. Trump administration officials have suggested they hope to issue a final decision on the mine's wetland permits by mid-2020. Whatever the timeline, any decision is certain to be challenged in court.
SCHINDLER BEARS AN UNCANNY resemblance to a grizzly. His head, topped by a thatch of gray-tinged brown hair, seems to rise straight from muscular shoulders. When he speaks, his heavy brow often furrows over close-set eyes in what resembles a glower, even when his voice has no trace of hostility.
He has turned that gaze on regulators and mine promoters, thrusting himself into the debate with characteristic bluntness. In April, he testified before a group of Alaskan state lawmakers about the draft environmental impact study, calling it a farce. "The Army Corps of Engineers should be ashamed of themselves and embarrassed if they are going to put this environmental impact statement forward as a piece of credible science. It is not."
He scoffs at Northern Dynasty's talk of a smaller, lower-impact mine. The company's newest proposal calls for mining roughly 15% of the ore deposit and not reaching the richest veins. As a result, many critics, including Schindler, suspect the current plan is just a first phase, downsized to pass regulatory muster while opening the door to a much bigger future mine—with much greater environmental impacts.
Federal wildlife agencies have expressed similar concerns. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have warned that the Army Corps has largely ignored the possibility of a bigger mine and understated or failed to consider risks to salmon. DOI officials wrote that the draft study was "so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis."
The mine's backers say a hypothetical bigger mine would have to win its own permit. "If there is a proposed expansion, that will have to go through the same permitting process," says Tom Collier, a lawyer and CEO of the Pebble Partnership in Anchorage, Alaska, which is controlled by Northern Dynasty. Collier was second in command at DOI in the 1990s, during former President Bill Clinton's administration.
Still, company officials have hinted that a bigger mine could follow. In November 2017, Northern Dynasty President Ron Thiessen told a mining industry conference that the initial mine would offer a chance to "get your social license and see where you go from that point."
Mine backers also say concerns about salmon are exaggerated. The streams at the mine site are tiny, and in studies done for the mining company, researchers found no evidence that the waters could support significant salmon numbers, Collier says. That means they don't really contribute to Schindler's portfolio effect. "The bottom line is that where this mine is going in is not good salmon habitat, period," Collier says.
Mine supporters have also questioned Schindler's expertise and motivations, arguing he has acted as an antimine crusader rather than the impartial scientist he claims to be. In 2012, organizers of a Pebble-funded scientific review panel, the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center, kicked Schindler out of the group after he co-wrote an editorial in the Seattle-based online magazine Crosscut, urging EPA to protect the region. Collier notes that Schindler isn't an expert on mine-related issues such as design of tailings ponds and hasn't studied the creeks that would be directly affected. Schindler is using his scientific credibility to "sit in a chair and express criticisms that are unrelated to his research," Collier says.
Schindler's defenders say he has stuck with the science and brings a deep knowledge of the whole ecosystem. "He's the right guy, and he's taken the bit in his mouth," says Ray Hilborn, a University of Washington fisheries expert and director of the university's Bristol Bay program.
Amid the crossfire, Schindler seems happiest waist-deep in a lake, counting sockeye. But he also appears to relish being part of the mine clash. He recently taught a university course dedicated to dissecting the Army Corps study. He has a fierce competitive streak, honed by ice hockey and sled dog racing as a child, and he says his father taught a key lesson: "Don't be afraid to be bold."
SCHINDLER ADMITS there's still a lot to learn about Bristol Bay's salmon. Scientists need "to keep poking away at this, trying to figure out what causes all these different dynamics," he says. "We probably will never really figure it out."
For him, that's part of the point. If fisheries officials don't know exactly what drives changes in salmon numbers or how to manage them, he says, it's prudent to try to protect a variety of habitat and salmon runs, particularly in light of climate change.
To illustrate, one afternoon he drifts a small motorboat to a halt just offshore of Dead Moose Creek. It looks as promising as its name. Ankle deep and narrow enough to cross in four strides, the stream seems vanishingly insignificant. Scientists never even bothered to count fish there. "A stream like that, you say, ‘Well, that creek's really nothing,’" Schindler says.
But this year is different. At the mouth of the stream, the water is alive with red backs and green fins. The fish are waiting, as their ancestors have for generations, for some unseen signal to launch themselves upstream.
The London Metal Exchange (LME) is partnering with Fastmarkets to develop the reference price for its planned lithium futures contract, which will help analysts and executives to get a full sense of the global market for the key ingredient in the making of the batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs).
Unlike for copper or other metals used in the making of EVs, there currently is no traded price for lithium.
“In recent years there has been unprecedented price volatility in the lithium market, driven particularly by explosive electric vehicle (EV) battery demand,” the exchange said.
Unlike for copper or other metals used in the making of electric vehicles, there is no traded price for lithium.
The move, it added, comes after industry players, including producers, end-users and several leading automotive firms, urged the LME to develop effective lithium price-risk management tools.
“This global strategic partnership will develop a definitive roadmap aimed at providing a pricing mechanism for lithium that can be utilized throughout the supply chain and will support the development of risk-management tools for the industry,” Fastmarkets said in a separate statement.
Last year, the LME asked companies that assess prices of battery-grade lithium to submit proposals to supply a reference for cash-settled contracts it planned to launch in the fourth quarter of this year.
Today, however, the exchange only said it would continue “to gauge appropriate timing” for a launch.
Currently, producers negotiate contracts with buyers, but the terms of the deals are not made public.
The LME, the world’s oldest and largest market for industrial metals, said it selected Fastmarkets because their prices were used widely across the industry.
The agency already provides the global benchmark for the cobalt market — another key battery raw material.
The Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines approved a permit related to Camino Minerals' (TSXV: COR) environmental impact assessment for the Chapitos copper-gold project.
The permit allows for the expansion of drilling activities along the Diva Trend at Chapitos. Drilling is expected to commence during the latter half of 2019.
Camino's 2019 exploration program is ongoing and includes geological mapping and structural analysis, chip/channel and trench sampling, and road building, all in preparation for geophysics and drilling
In a press release, Camino explained that the 200-drill pad permit allows for a maximum of 908 drill holes or 445,200 metres of drilling over a 3.6-year period.
According to the miner, the drilling will further define and potentially expand on the copper mineralized zones at the Adriana, Katty, and Vicky targets, but also includes drilling designed to evaluate the potential for additional zones of copper mineralization along the Diva Trend.
"Camino is excited to have received the EIA permit to continue drilling the Diva Trend copper mineralization along strike and down dip allowing for potential expansion of the mineralized footprint," the firm's CEO, John Williamson, said in the media brief. "The permit will allow the company to better locate drill collars in optimum locations to both test the Diva structure and other structural and stratigraphic copper opportunities while potentially minimizing drill costs."
Camino informed that the exploration program will also include follow-up work on the Atajo Trend where exploratory drilling intersected 0.83 % copper over 16.3 metres, including 2.09 % copper over 5.0 metres.
The Chapitos project is a 22,000-hectare land pack near Chala in southern Peru.
Canada's New Energy Metals (TSXV: ENRG) announced that it entered into a letter of intent with certain arm’s length vendors to be granted the exclusive right and option to acquire an initial 70% royalty-free interest in and to certain exploration and exploitation mineral concessions known as the “Exploradora North project.”
The 84,750-hectare project is located in the II and III Regions of northern Chile along the prolific West Fissure fault system between the open-pit Escondida mine, the largest copper mine in the world which is owned by BHP and Rio Tinto, and Codelco’s El Salvador underground copper mine.
In a press release, New Energy explained that Exploradora North is also located immediately north and east of Codelco’s Exploradora deep drilling project, where near-surface resource reported 100 Mt of 0.3 Cu and 0.2 g/t gold.
According to New Energy, Minera Activa, a private Chilean company, recently announced positive results in the Exploradora district, and Brazil’s Vale is also actively drilling to the west of Exploradora North.
To move forward with the acquisition, New Energy Metals, through a wholly-owned Chilean subsidiary, will enter into a formal option to purchase agreement which contemplates that the Vancouver-based firm has to incur in exploration expenditures on the project of at least $15 million within 48 months of the effective date. The company will also have to pay $8.5 million an issue an aggregate of 11,500,000 common shares of New Energy Metals, all of which will be done in different installments or phases.
Canada’s DeepGreen Metals, a start-up planning to extract cobalt and other battery metals from small rocks covering the seafloor, has secured the bulk of the $150 million it needs to carry out its first feasibility studies.
The financing, provided by Switzerland-based offshore pipeline company Allseas Group, is a welcome sign of progress for the deep sea mining sector, which has been stalled due regulatory uncertainty and environmental concerns.
Unlike other seafloor mining companies, including pioneer Nautilus Minerals, the Vancouver-based explorer doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean. DeepGreen’s main goal is to scoop up small metallic rocks located thousands of metres below the surface in the North Pacific Ocean.
Unlike other seafloor mining companies, the Canadian start-up doesn’t want to drill, blast or dig the bottom of the ocean, but to scoop up small rocks containing cobalt, nickel and other battery metals.
Its exploration focus is the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a mineral-rich, 4,000-kilometre swath of the Pacific that stretches from Hawaii to Mexico, where billions of potato-sized metals-rich rocks lie in a shallow layer of mud on the seafloor.
The deep sea, more than half the world’s surface, contains more cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earth metals than all land reserves combined, according to the US Geological Survey.
Companies exploring or already developing projects to mine the seafloor argue the extraction of those deep-buried riches could help diversify the sources currently supplying metals needed for electronics and evolving green technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs) and solar panels.
Academics and scientist, however, are concerned by the lack of research on the possible impacts of high seas mining. They fear the activity could devastate fragile ecosystems that are slow to recover in the highly pressurized darkness of the deep sea, as well as having knock-on effects on the wider ocean environment.
Not enough studies
Last year, the European Parliament called for a ban on seabed mining until the environmental impacts and risks of disturbing unique deep-sea ecosystems are understood. In the resolution, it also urged the European Commission to persuade member states to stop sponsoring and subsidizing licenses to explore and exploit the seabed in international waters as well as within their own territories.
Shortly after, an international team of researchers published a set of criteria to help the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body made up of 168 countries, protect biodiversity from deep-sea mining activities.
So far, it has granted 29 licences to governments and companies, authorizing them to explore in international waters.
Nautilus, however, is the only company that has gone beyond the exploration stage and has gotten close to open the first polymetallic seabed mine off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Its Solwara 1 project, however, has been slowed by funding issues and local opposition.
Anglo American (LON:AAL) sold its 4% stake in Nautilus a year ago, as part of efforts to retain only its most profitable assets. And, in March, it had to delist from the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Scientists at the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory created ultra-low density gold, silver and copper foams to give physicists better X-ray sources to employ in experiments at the National Ignition Facility.
This facility is a large laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device that uses lasers to heat and compress a small amount of hydrogen fuel with the goal of inducing nuclear fusion reactions.
“We are looking primarily at fundamental science questions that govern how to synthesize, assemble and shape metal nanowire-based aerogels,” said the project’s principal investigator, Michael Bagge-Hansen, in a media statement.
Bagge-Hansen explained that although the material is called foam, it is not made by foaming. Rather, it is a spaghetti-like web of randomly connected nanometer-sized wires, formed into the shape of a miniature marshmallow and containing the same or fewer number of atoms as air.
The National Ignition Facility’s mission is to achieve fusion ignition with high energy gain, and to support nuclear weapon maintenance and design
To conduct this experiment, the research group sought different ultra-low density metals that could be used as targets for laser-driven X-ray sources for experiments further probing the properties of various materials placed under the extreme conditions possible when the National Ignition Facility’s 192 high-powered lasers are directed inside the target chamber.
According to Tyler Fears -one of the scientists involved in the project- each element emits a characteristic set of X-rays when heated by lasers into a plasma. “Metal foams can mimic gas even though they are made from materials that are not gas at room temperature,” he said.
To create the foams, the team freezes the nanowire inside a shape-creating mold typically filled with a water-glycerol mix. When it hardens, the nanowire looks like a mesh of frozen spaghetti.
The material is then removed from the mold and the frozen water is extracted by replacing it with the solvent acetone, which is then dissolved in a supercritical drying process using liquid carbon dioxide, leaving only the metal and air. “Supercritical drying ensures the liquid transforms into a gas phase without creating a meniscus that could damage the fragile ultra-low density metal foam structure,” Fears said.
Using this process, the experts have produced copper and silver foam, and silver has performed well at the National Ignition Facility.
When it comes to gold foams, Fears said they still tend to fall off the mounts that hold them in front of the lasers. “That’s the challenge we’re trying to overcome now,” he said.
A paper published in the journal Resources Policy states that bonus schemes for middle management employees in mining companies play a role in tailings dams failures.
According to the research article, such compensation packages actively encourage managers to cut costs and increase production, as the material decisions that put into motion such measures lay in their hands and positive results would increase their annual bonuses.
Although most mining companies don’t make public the compensation packages they give their middle management personnel, such incentives are known to be a common practice in the industry. Thus, using the information provided by the two companies that do report them, Newmont Goldcorp (NYSE: NEM, TSX: NGT) and AngloGold Ashanti (JSE:ANG, NYSE:AU), the authors of the study found that some schemes are equivalent, in financial terms, to an equity payment plus a put option.
The number of tailings dam failures has doubled in recent years from 8 in the period 1999–2003 to 16 in 2014–2018
“So the bonus is highly leveraged. Like investment bankers, the person stands to gain a lot if his/her performance is above target, but loses little, if it falls below target,” the study reads. “Year after year, managers keep taking risks with a low probability of occurrence but with potentially catastrophic consequences. These risks are compounded by shortages of experienced staff due to the cyclic nature of the industry and the retirement of the baby-boomer generation.”
Authors Margaret Armstrong, Renato Petterd and Carlos Petterd connected their observations to those in earlier research papers that analyzed certain cases of tailings dams failures and found that either production was increased or costs were significantly reduced in the years leading to the accidents.
The academics report that, for example, prior to the collapse of the tailings facility at the gold and copper Mount Polley mine in British Columbia in August 2014, which resulted in 24 million cubic meters of contaminated sludge and mine waste going into nearby lakes and rivers, Canada’s Imperial Metals (TSX: III) had grown its production by 23% in Q2-2014 from the previous quarter.
Boliden Apirsa, on the other hand, had flat revenues from 1995 to 1997, just before the tailings dam crashed at the Los Frailes lead and zinc mine in Aznalcóllar, Spain, in April 1998. But capital expenditures doubled during this period from $55.4 million to $112.3 million and operating income increased spectacularly from $2.3 million to $84.9 million. “So production costs must have dropped significantly over the period.”
The aftermath of the disaster in Brumardinho following Vale's tailings dam collapse. Photo by Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama, Wikimedia Commons.
In Brazil, production at Vale’s (NYSE:VALE) Samarco iron ore mine had increased by almost 40% in the five quarters just before the accident there in 2015, which killed 19 people and became the country’s worst-ever environmental disaster. Similarly, at the Paraopeba subsection of the Southern System where the Corrego do Feijão dam was located, production was risen by 12% in the five quarters before the Brumardinho catastrophe where almost 300 people died.
“The next question we asked ourselves was: Had an extra tailings dam been constructed to handle this additional quantity of rejects, or was it being pumped into existing tailings facilities? Alternatively, had filter presses or high capacity thickening been introduced to reduce the quantity of water?”, the authors of the paper ask.
After reviewing Vale’s quarterly reports for investors, which list all the major projects in progress, they found that there is no mention of building a new tailings dam or of filter presses. “This means that the existing ones had to cope with the waste from the extra production.”
Off the hook
Except for $42.5 million for the initial clean-up, the paper in Resources Policy highlights the fact that Boliden Apirsa succeeded in avoiding paying for the pollution caused by the tailings dam breach.
“Boliden's legal team and expert witnesses convinced a Spanish court of law that the tailings dam failure was due to geotechnical problems, thereby transferring the responsibility to the companies that had designed and built the dam. An epic legal battle ensued in which the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and the local government of Andalusia attempted to get Boliden to pay for the damage, but failed due to loopholes in the Spanish legal system,” the document reads.
In the case of the Mount Polley mine, Armstrong and her colleagues bring to the forefront the fact that the Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel established after the accident found that the failure was caused by the design, which did not take into account the complexity of the sub-glacial and pre-glacial geological environment associated with the Perimeter Embankment foundation.
This has meant that no one has been held responsible for the disaster and, on top of this, the 3-year deadline to lay charges under British Columbia laws passed in 2017, while there is only one year left to lay charges under federal environmental and fisheries law.
The authors of the study refrained from commenting on the legal proceedings involving Vale’s tailings dam failures as they are still in progress.
In their recommendations of what would be needed to stop tailings dam failures, the researchers suggest, besides changes in the processing technology and wider adoption of the Mining Association of Canada’s guidelines issued in 2017, heavier fines and penalties.
US stock markets just enjoyed their best week of the year on speculation that the Federal Reserve would once again ride to the rescue of equities and inflate asset prices by cutting rates.
The S&P 500 index is sporting double digit percentage gains so far this year. Meanwhile, the S&P GSCI All Commodities index is down 14% over the past year.
Apart from all things gold, Incrementum's 13th annual In Gold We Trust report also features broader takes on the environment for raw materials and argues that in a historical context commodities remain undervalued compared to stock markets in the extreme.
Plotting the S&P GSCI and the S&P 500 all the way back to 1970 shows the indices long-term upward trend line and the current disconnect between commodities and equities:
To return to this trend line – which happens on average every 6 to 8 years – the S&P would have to fall by 44% and the GSCI to rise by 112%.
This is a scenario that seems highly unlikely, if not impossible, at the moment. However, a glance at the following chart or at the history books puts this alleged impossibility into perspective.
Goldspot Discoveries (TSXV: SPOT) announcedFriday a signed service agreement with Pacton Gold (CVE: PAC) toGoldspot's A.I. and machine learning tools to evaluate and identify possible mineral and drill targets on Pacton’s Red Lake, Ontario property."We believe Red Lake's ground is ripe for a technological revolution" — Goldspot CEO
Goldspot has been granted a 0.5% smelter royalty on the property and the option to purchase an additional 0.5% net smelter return royalty on all metals produced from the Red Lake property for C$1 million, as well as 0.5% net smelter return royalty on all metals produced from all the current claims comprising Pacton's Australia assets in the Pilbara Craton for C$1 million.
"The Pacton Gold property in the historic Red Lake gold camp in North western Ontario excites us. It is the ideal district to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to find new discoveries," said Denis Laviolette, GoldSpot’s president and CEO in a media statement. "After initial screening and utilizing artificial intelligence to analyze various layers of data related to Pacton Gold's property, we have made our largest speculative bet to date."
"We believe Red Lake's ground is ripe for a technological revolution, and this deal gives us royalty exposure to 16,630 hectares of prospective land," said Laviolette.
Market reaction to the partnership was positive: Goldspot’s stock was up 4%, and Pacton’s stock was up on the CVE Friday afternoon.