On October 22, 2018, various Zambian online news outlets reported that Zambia’s Vice President Madam Inonge Wina issued a mandate to award Zambia’s old copper mining tailings piles to the youth as an empowerment mechanism. In spite of the good intentions on the part of the Vice President Madam Inonge Wina, it is a grave mistake, literally and metaphorically, to award Zambia’s old tailings spoils (Black Mountains – Mining waste) to the youth.
What needs to happen instead, is that established Zambian entities that have best management practices in place, take over the business of tailings re-processing. The youth can be employed by such entities in larger numbers than artisanal mining entities can. Also, the health, safety and environmental protections provided by larger scale mining are invaluable to communities. Artisanal mining has its place in the mining industry. However, more health, safety and environmental measures need to be put in place and enforced, to protect the work force and the environment.
The number one priority in the mining industry must be the safety of the workforce. This must be a no brainer given the catastrophe that occurred in Kitwe’s Wusakile Black Mountain in June 2018 in which 11 artisanal miners lost their lives. Prior to the tragedy, the minister of mines Honorable Richard Musukwa had deceived the nation and the president in particular that Kitwe’s Black Mountain operations were safe. No one has been held accountable for that tragedy to date. Instead, more of our youth are put in harm’s way by awarding them more tailings spoils, without the necessary training and resources to mine sustainably.
Aside from imminent dangers of slope failures that can engulf and kill multiple miners at one time, the potential chronic effects of mining heavy metals without safety measures must not be underestimated. When you look at the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) of copper ore, copper is carcinogenic. It has the potential to cause cancer, if not handled safely. In particular, inhaling fine copper ore dust, among other siliceous substances, has long term effects on human lungs and other internal organs. Dust suppression measures such as water misting and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as dust masks and gloves must be worn where applicable risks exist. The Mine Safety Department (MSD) is failing our people again and again, not only regarding the safety aspect of their mandate, but also environmentally, a responsibility they share with Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA).
The impact of small scale miners on the environment must not be understated. This is in particular reference to air and water. Any rain water that falls on copper processing tailings must be collected and disposed of safely to avoid contamination of rivers. Artisanal mining disturbs otherwise compacted and cemented tailings, producing small transportable particles that are easily suspended in runoff water, ending up in rivers. Some of the elements contained in tailings have potential to leach into ground water sources, that would affect well water in residential areas. It must also be noted that aquatic animals in our rivers are harmed by both suspended solid particles and soluble liquid pathogens. A well engineered erosion control plan, which may include grading the mine area appropriately, and silt fencing, among other measures, can limit the impact of mining on surrounding run off and ground water.
The air that people of Wusakile, Nkana West, and Nkana East breath should be protected from the black mountain dust that contains heavy metals. This applies to all communities that are in the vicinity of tailings that are being mined on a small scale basis. Dust control measures must be implemented. An example of such can be applying water periodically using a water truck or magnesium chloride to capture dust particles on the ground before they become airborne. A wheel wash for trucks before they leave mining premises helps limit dust being dragged onto nearby community roads. These environmental measures must be clearly stated in the mining permit. Failure to implement such measures on the part of the miner should immediately nullify the mining permit. Clearly, (ZEMA) is failing to carry out its mandate.
The next priority following health, safety and environmental measures, is optimizing the value of the resource in question. When you read about the history of First Quantum Minerals (FQM), it starts from 1996 when they obtained their mining license in Zambia to re-process Bwana Mkubwa tailings (Copper waste) in Ndola. In 1998, FQM completed construction of the treatment plant to re-treat these tailings.
Fast forward to 2018, FQM is a global conglomerate with a market capitalization value of over $10 billion. The point being put across here is that, if a competent and well funded Zambian entity was put in place to re-process waste from old mining operations across Zambia, there is potential to build a multi billion dollar empire that would not only employ thousands of Zambians, but also contribute significantly to Zambia’s treasury in the form of taxes. This can be done safely, sustainably and efficiently, benefiting more Zambians for a much longer time.
Time and time again, the Patriotic Front (PF) is incapable of identifying opportunities. Instead, opportunities are turned into tragedies, because incompetent people are put in decision making positions for which they are not qualified. MEE would like to put it on record that we are prepared to render our in house expertise in mining and finance to set up and operationalize the legal entity that could take up the processing of tailings, and employ our youth.
Madam Vice President Inonge Wina, please reconsider this maligned decision of empowering Zambian youths dangerously with no regard to their imminent and chronic health needs.
Victor K. Mwaba, MBA, CSSBB
Movement for Economic Emancipation (MEE) – Head of Mining and Mineral Resources