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Rare Metals: France wants to reopen its mines amid technical and ecological controversies

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France is considering reviving its mining activity. The stated goal is to ensure our supply of raw materials, especially for rare metals that are essential to the ecological and energy transition. In regions where prospecting is beginning, local populations are mobilizing. The resulting controversy takes on the air of a technical debate. But behind it lie deeper ecological, political and economic issues that question the relationship between citizens and their territory.
 
Po reach the small village of Couflens, located in the Ariège Pyrenees, there is only one road. A tarmac road that winds along the Salat, a torrent steeped in the valley to which it gives its name. To the right and to the left, the mountain dominates. When the rocky slopes diverge at the bend in the road, the peaks marking the valley floor can be seen a few kilometres away. Beyond, it is Spain. After Couflens in the direction of the border, the departmental road continues towards the hamlet of Salau. There are a few stone houses lining the road, an old Romanesque church, an inn... and small buildings, obviously more recent. These low-rent housing units built in Salau in the 1970s stand out from the surrounding bucolic and picturesque scenery. They are one of the last testimonies of the region's mining past.
Between 1971 and 1986, more than 12,000 tonnes of tungsten trioxide were extracted from the surrounding mountains. The activity had then increased the population of Couflens and its surroundings to nearly 400 inhabitants in 1975. Today, there are only 80 left. The mine is part of the memory of the elders, and the passing hikers have replaced the sedentary miners.
The story could have ended there if in November 2014 Variscan Mines had not applied for an exclusive mining research permit (PERM) in the commune of Couflens. The objective? To explore the soil over an area of 42 km² in search of tungsten, tin, gold, silver, copper, bismuth or tantalum. Two years later, on October 21, 2016, the Secretary of State for Industry announced that Variscan Mines had been awarded this permit.
 
This decision reflects a national political will. Arnaud Montebourg and Emmanuel Macron both reiterated their wish to see mines reopen in France during their tenure as Minister of the Economy. They then synchronised the State with the ambitions of the European Union to establish sovereignty in the acquisition of raw materials considered strategic for the industry.
In 2011, China controlled more than 97 % of the world's production of rare earths, essential for new technologies, while hosting "only" 50 % of the known terrestrial reserves. It also holds a monopoly on other mineral resources, such as antimony, which it shares with Russia on aluminium. This leading role in the production of certain raw materials is used by the People's Republic as a weapon. During a crisis in the China Sea in November 2010, it had blocked exports of rare earths to Japan.

READ UP : China: Hijacking the high-tech raw material

This is a major economic pressure that Europe is seeking to guard against. In April 2018, the Committee for Strategic Metals - the French support structure for the Minister of the Economy and Finance - classified the tungsten as a critical substance due to the high risk on its supply and its strategic importance for French industry. This desire for sovereignty has consequences even in the most remote villages of the Pyrenees. But not without contestation.
 

Citizen's voice

Political choices are never unanimous. And the idea of a mining revival initiated by the previous government and pursued by the current one is no exception. Variscan's PERM applications in the Pyrenees, but also in other French regions such as Brittany, quickly gave rise to opposition movements. In the areas around Couflens and Salau, associations mobilised against the reopening of the mine. Since the 1980s, a few reports mentioning the presence of asbestos in the mine have emerged. In 1986, Henri Pézerat, a toxicologist at the CNRS who helped to ban asbestos in France, observed cases of pulmonary fibrosis among miners. In a study, he explained that this toxicity was directly linked to one of the rocks in the mine: skarn, which contains calcium tungstate, from which tungsten is extracted. The gangue of the skarn, the unmineralized part of this rock - anything other than calcium tungstate - would contain the substances that are toxic to the lungs, and would be released into the air during mining. This study is now being contested by several researchers, including Éric Marcoux, a professor at the University of Orléans, who points to thesis work that did not reveal the presence of asbestos in the mine. Additional measures are planned as part of the PERM, with the aim of removing doubts and resolving the question of whether or not asbestos is present in the galleries. In the meantime, this point crystallises certain positions rejecting the project and structures part of the debate on the Salau mine.
 
The dangerousness of mining for site employees is not the only argument put forward by local people who oppose the various projects. Julien Merlin, a sociologist at Mines Nancy, is studying various protest sites in France, particularly in Brittany. He notes that the permits at Silfiac, Merléac and Loc-Envel, in Morbihan and Côtes d'Armor, raise environmental issues. « Associations highlight the impact of exploratory drilling on aquifers "says the researcher. According to them, groundwater bodies, whose location is not precisely known, could be particularly endangered by drilling additives or toxic or radioactive metallic minerals brought up by the drills. « Debates between populations and project leaders often focus on technical aspects, which differ from one site to another. "observes Julien Merlin.
 
Near the entrance to the galleries of the Salau mine, the waste from the mining of yesteryear has been heaped up in slag heaps on the slopes of the mountain. The metals (copper, lead, arsenic, antimony, zinc) that they could release into nearby streams in case of bad weather are a source of concern for environmental groups.
 
Whether it concerns the environment or public health, citizens are organizing themselves to produce alternative forms of expertise aimed at demonstrating the dangers of a mine. Relying mainly on the consequences of 19th and 20th century French mining activity - which have now largely disappeared - they seek to counterbalance the "clean mines" or "responsible mining" arguments put forward by industrialists and the government. To do this, the collectives are developing a network with national and international NGOs. « In Brittany, very local associations such as Vigil'Ouste or Douar Di Doull organise study days, festivals or events to which they invite Friends of the Earth or Engineers Without Borders, which are more important movements. " describes the sociologist from Mines Nancy. These events are an opportunity to bring in experts from the "big" NGOs to inform local populations about the specific problems posed by a mine on a territory. On July 22, 2017, Engineers Without Borders participated in the Plougonver Festival of Struggles, organized by Douar Di Doull in Brittany. It presented the different existing mines, the processes of transformation of ore into metal and the possible impacts of the activity.
 

Contemporary mining and its risks

Within the academic scientific community, numerous research projects are underway to better identify, prevent and control the risks associated with mining activities. Nevertheless, these risks cannot be totally eliminated, nor can their consequences for the territory where mines are established. Yann Gunzburger is a researcher in geosciences at Mines Nancy. He worked for a long time on purely technical mining issues before exploring research topics integrating the human and social sciences. For him, " any industrial activity involves an element of risk. This is also true for mining activities, especially since they are carried out in connection with the natural environment, which is still imperfectly known and therefore a source of many uncertainties."
Mining risks vary greatly from one operation to another, or from one country to another. While coal mining in China today probably causes around ten thousand deaths a year (for two billion tonnes of coal produced annually by China), serious accidents in France before the closure of the last coal mines in the years 1990-2000 were counted in units (for around 10 million tonnes produced nationally). This difference is due to the large number of mines in China, certainly, to the respective legislation of the two States as well, but also to the technical, scientific and engineering means deployed to limit the risks.
 
In a controversy whose technical aspects are also important, David Salze likes to remind us that a mine is not a unique object that can be transposed between territories. This ITM researcher from Mines Alès explains that each site has its own particularities and constraints. The profile of the mine will inevitably be impacted. « Mining can be open pit or underground. "contextualizes the researcher. « Open-pit mines have the greatest visual impact. "In the mining sector, professionals talk about " hollow tooth ». A hole dug in the ground that can look like a gash in a landscape. The development of these sites is done by successive earthworks. The deeper the extraction is, the more numerous and fragile the rock steps on its perimeter will be. « Landslides and block falls are among the major risks at these operations. " points to David Salze.
 
An open pit mine can have a considerable visual impact on a landscape.
 
When the deposits extend too deep, open-pit mining is no longer possible. Although underground mines have the advantage of being less visible, they do not fall short on the issue of risk. When the drifts are dug, masses of rock can suddenly and explosively break up, creating a "rock pile". groundswell ». The deeper the mine, the greater the forces and pressures at work, and the more violent the blows. In addition, whether the mine is underground or open pit, mined rock is stored outside and sometimes even processed on site. « Ore-processing residues are stored behind dikes, where, for example, the sun's rays will break down the cyanide residues from the processing of gold ores. "says David Salze.
 
Breaking these dikes can lead to major pollution, especially when storage areas fill with water as a result of rainfall. This is what happened in Romania in 2000. At the Baia Mare gold mine site, cyanide-laden water and sludge was discharged into the Lapus, a tributary of the Danube. The local flora and fauna were heavily affected: destruction of plankton, massive death of fish... The disaster is now considered to be the second biggest ecological disaster in Europe after Chernobyl. Technical solutions exist to limit these risks. The soils of the basins are impermeable with clay, and the ore stocks are covered with waterproof tarpaulins. Treatments can also be carried out off-site, in specific and more secure locations to avoid storing the rocks on site.
 
" Mines are not neutral; they cannot be invisible. "says Yann Gunzburger, from Mines Nancy, like an echo to the reality of the hazards mentioned. Because, beyond the installation itself, water and energy have to be brought to the site. The extracted material has to be transported, which often means building new roads for trucks. « But what is certain is that we have the knowledge to design exemplary mines, provided we have the means to do so. Upstream research can help reduce uncertainty and risk "moderates the researcher. He cites as an example the digital tools that his geoscience work is helping to develop. Thanks to simulation, it is possible to better predict excavation-related microearthquakes, anticipate ground shaking and better control interaction with groundwater. Integrating these risk control techniques into mining projects can significantly increase safety. In Canada or Austria, for example, mines designed in this way no longer have fatal accidents.
 
" The real difficulty today is not so much technical as it is to conceive of the mining project as a territorial project. "explains the Nancy Mines researcher. The mining enclave model, i.e. an area disconnected from its surroundings, such as a military base, cannot work according to him. If a mine can't be invisible, it shouldn't try to be invisible either. In order to better manage risk, it is indeed important to involve local populations, not to exclude citizens. The latter are stakeholders in the notion of risk. « Without taking into account the different actors, and in particular the local aspects, mining projects are doomed to failure. "Judge Yann Gunzburger.
 

A controversy mixing technical, social and political issues

In the small communes of Brittany studied by Julien Merlin, the lack of consideration for citizens is exactly what mobilizes local associations. The collectives have long regretted not being included in the consultation mechanisms. However, the regional directorates for the environment, development and housing (DREAL) do set up information and monitoring commissions linked to each exploration permit. « But local residents' associations are not invited to the meetings. " observes the sociologist.
Discussions are therefore held between the operator Variscan Mines, town halls, prefectures and more global associations, such as Côtes d'Armor Nature Environnement, or Eau et Rivière de Bretagne for the consultations that take place in the Brittany region. « These larger associations are already themed around the environment when they are invited. " reminds Julien Merlin. They are the ones who raised the question of the danger of drilling for aquifers. But by inviting only regional or national bodies that are already specialized in environmental issues, local demands on other subjects do not always find their place in the debates. In the case of the Couflens-Salau mine, citizen consultation in 2016 was limited to an online vote. And even if environmental associations had been involved, the issue of asbestos and public health risks would have been relegated to the background. The consultation processes then find themselves at the centre of the debate. The direction of the controversy depends on the choice of the actors represented and the subjects to be addressed.
 
The complexity of the link between local and global demands is what drives Julien Merlin's research. His previous work on the mining controversy around the Goro Plateau in New Caledonia had shown how local environmental, cultural and political issues had come together to provide a coherent voice of opposition. In the case of metropolitan France, he continues to challenge the "NIMBY" approach, which reduces local mobilization to the simple defence of quality of life. NIMBY is the acronym for "not in my backyard". Local collectives are making demands that go far beyond the desire not to see a mine in their landscape because it is not aesthetic. « In Brittany, local residents have arguments for the development of green tourism, which in their opinion is incompatible with mining. "says the researcher by way of example.
 
For the government, this regional economic argument remains less important than the sovereignty argument. Securing supplies in the face of a possible blockade by mining countries that have a monopoly remains the priority. The Administration also puts forward an ethical dimension in its approach: reopening mines in France is precisely to be able to meet the safety requirements that mines abroad do not respect. « The question of sovereignty is therefore also in some ways a question of responsibility. " points Julien Merlin. Among the stakeholders, the complexity of the arguments also stems from the fact that they are not placed on the same level. On the economic dimension alone, it is difficult to reconcile the opposition between green tourism and sovereignty over the supply of raw materials. All the more so since, in order to respond to the government, some associations sometimes place themselves on a radically different level, such as that of economic decline.
 
" Some groups criticise the very idea of mining activity and are campaigning for an alternative that emphasises recycling circuits to reuse raw materials already in circulation. "says Julien Merlin. In December 2016, the Friends of the Earth Federation's report entitled "The Earth's Future" was published. Digging and drilling, what for? The "Life Cycle Assessment" report stressed the need to extend the life of products in order to limit the consumption of the metals required for their design. As an aside, the report mentioned that 57 % of electrical and electronic waste was not being recycled in the approved recycling stream. « The re-employment rate does not exceed 2 %. Our waste is far from being reborn into new products. " thus wrote the association. This report is a document on which many anti-mining groups today rely. It is present in the documentation pages of their websites, and thus shows how the technical debate is also political.
 
For government experts, it is impossible to meet the demand for mineral resources simply through recycling, if only because of the planet's growing population. « In reality, years of research will be needed to decide whether or not it is possible to use recycling in the majority of cases, especially as recycling channels are constantly innovating. "announces Yann Gunzburger. « For some alloys, this is such a complex issue that it is impossible to say today who is right or wrong.. "On the other hand, focusing part of the debate on recycling channels gives the mining controversy a productive aspect. « The sustainability of recycling is becoming an increasingly political and scientific issue, partly due to the mining debate. "says Julien Merlin. Behind geographically very localized debates are therefore very strong political and societal issues.
 
" The hallmark of the mining issue is that local controversies are never just local. "says Brice Laurent, sociologist of controversies at Mines ParisTech. Technical debates are the tip of a deeper iceberg of protest, both political and economic. For associations, being inaudible in consultation bodies is experienced as a denial of democracy. « Unlike other controversies, such as nanotechnologies, the question of participation is not always explicitly raised in the debates on the French mining revival. "notes the sociologist. When public policy programs on nanotechnology were launched in the 2000s, the National Commission for Public Debate organized debates throughout France. « A participatory objective was explicit. It was problematic but it was present. In the case of mines, this dimension is less visible. " continues Brice Laurent.
 

The mine, and then...

Yet there is much to be gained by including local people in the deliberations. David Salze's research at ITM Mines Alès is largely motivated by the question of the 'post-mining' era. He finds that the least contested mine sites are those that think the mine's fate is in doubt from the start of the project. "There are very good examples of farms that have had a second life in the service of their territory. "he points out. Places are completely revegetated and find a renaissance by being filled in by a lake, or transformed into a wetland. On some sites, the clearing needed to set up the mine is seen as an opportunity to create an activity or industrial zone once the minerals have been extracted. By thinking about the future of the operations as soon as the project is set up, the involvement of the populations and dialogue is facilitated. It is under these conditions that the mining project can become a territorial project.
 
" However, to do this, you still need to know the mine that will be built. "says David Salze. And you can't know that without knowing the minerals in the soil. By getting involved from the exploration phase, citizens find themselves in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they are asking for answers about potential operations that may appear on their territory before drilling begins. But on the other hand, they prevent technical expertise from accessing the knowledge that could answer their questions. « Their questions can only be answered if we know the nature of the deposit, its tonnage, and how it can be exploited. "says ITM researcher Mines Alès. A study of the arguments reveals that this opposition to the production of knowledge about the deposit is far from primary. « In Salau, some opponents believe that expert appraisals should not be carried out by private companies, as this conditions the territory. " reveals Julien Merlin. Part of the mobilized population is therefore not in itself against exploration, but asks that the information be produced in a neutral manner, if at all possible.
 
Once the exploration data is obtained, answers can be provided. By combining life cycle assessment methods and risk analysis methodology, David Salze is developing new tools to calculate the impact of a mine. « We create real-time measurement networks to continuously evaluate parameters such as suspended matter in groundwater, upstream and downstream of the mine, and the hydrocarbon content of the environment. We look at how activities around the mine are influenced. "The consequences of the mine can now be clearly established in response to the citizens.
 
For Jean-Alain Fleurisson, a researcher at the Centre de Géosciences de Mines ParisTech, despite the knowledge that can be acquired with current scientific means, there is still a long way to go to engage the population. « France, whose economy has benefited so much from the wealth of the subsoil in the past, also has significant mining legacies on its territory. "he recalls. Even today, the former uranium mines continue to stir up debate. Mine tailings, minerals too poor in radioactive material to be recovered, have been used in some regions as fill by private individuals for housing earthworks. As uranium decays, it produces radon, a gas that is one of the main radioactive sources to which humans are exposed. The basements of homes built on soils containing waste rock can contain dangerous levels of radon gas.
 
Until 2002, it was legal to buy these sterile ones. However, guidelines have lowered the threshold for exposure of the population to radioactive emissions. Some tailings have gone above this standard, triggering public concern. The technical controversy then also became a legal controversy. « Radon concentration measurements are disputed, many actors propose their own technical standards in the face of the legal standard. "observe Ghid Karam and Bérénice Chaumont, from Brice Laurent's team at Mines ParisTech. The sociological work they are carrying out on these former uranium sites, particularly in Limousin and Burgundy, shows how complex the debate is. « Without standardisation of standards at European and then national level, with consultation between the technical opposition bodies, dialogue seems difficult. "says Ghid Karam.
 

How's the balance of power?

Whether it is the waste rock from uranium mines, or the reports mentioning asbestos in the Salau mine in the Pyrenees, these consequences of the mining past engender mistrust of the extractive industry. The virulence of the rejection of mines by the population is such that the Breton exploration permits granted to Variscan Mines are getting bogged down. « The company has almost decided to stop, and has transferred its PERMs to an Anglo-Saxon company. "explains Julien Merlin. The mining future of the Silfiac, Merléac and Loc-Envel PERMs is therefore unclear. Opponents continue to call for a true cancellation of the projects, while the position of the new owner of the permits remains unknown. The situation is more or less similar for the other permits granted in France: opposition movements have succeeded in slowing down the prospecting stages. For the Couflens-Salau mine, on the other hand, the future appears more complex. « This may be the only site where the debate will really take off... " thinks the sociologist.
 
It must be said that this project has the particularity of mobilizing citizens in favour of its realization. « For some people, the old mine was the symbol of an industrialized territory... "observes Julien Merlin to follow up on the interviews conducted on site. The PPERMS collective is thus campaigning for responsible exploitation of the Salau deposit. It has an economic claim aimed at revitalising the region. « They don't pit tourism against mining "notes the researcher. « For them, this is not necessarily incompatible provided a number of precautions are taken. "This citizen position is particularly atypical. On other controversial sites, such arguments are generally formulated by mining companies. This is the case of Variscan Mines in Brittany. Citizen positions are therefore not uniform across the country. They depend on the economic and political opinions of local residents. « This is where the economic dimension of the debate becomes important: sometimes individuals will consider that they are in an economically depressed region, which will influence their view of a mining project. "says Julien Merlin.
 
In the case of the Ariège region, the uncertainty is due more to the balance of power between the collectives on site. As tensions rise, the arguments go beyond the simple question of public health. Is it economically profitable to reopen a mine in Salau? What would be the consequence for tourism? What form does the responsibility of industrialists and the government take? This last question is particularly crucial, because the notion of responsibility also depends on the construction of dialogue between the various stakeholders. In this sense, Brice Laurent brings the concept of responsible mining closer to that of responsible innovation. « There are two very different ways of making responsible innovation work: one on the borderline of greenwashing, which is to do a project, and once it's finished putting a layer of impact studies on it to make sure it's accepted. The other is to say that we don't know at the outset what a responsible mine will be, and to really ask the question with everyone, even if it means realizing during the process that a particular mine project is not acceptable for a given territory."
 
Finally, for the opponents on the spot in the Salat valley, it is absurd to resume mining when a reform of the mining code has been underway for many years. The mining legislation has yet to be harmonised with the environmental code. Knowing that the mining code is today very much focused on post-mining management - i.e. on the rehabilitation of sites in particular - public and industrial authorities agree that it is necessary to integrate aspects relating to exploitation in order to provide a better framework for prospecting and extraction activities. And once the two codes have been harmonised, what will happen? Will the arguments of local associations and NGOs be undermined? Difficult to predict... The need to bring the reform of the mining code to a successful conclusion has never been so pressing, and the time frame has never been so relevant. If parliamentary debates were to see the light of day, there is no doubt that the cases of mobilization observed in Brittany or the Pyrenees will fuel the debates.
 
The researchers interviewed in this article (Jean-Alain Fleurisson, Yann Gunzburger, Brice Laurent, Julien Merlin and David Salze) are members of the Network of Excellence (NoE) Mine & Society. This network was created in 2014 to address the lack of coordinated academic and interdisciplinary scientific expertise on the mining issue. It brings together French expertise to understand and anticipate the needs of civil society, public authorities and industry in the raw materials sector. The field of study of the Mine & Société network naturally includes the national territory, but is expanding to Europe and all mining countries in the world. The network includes: IMT Mines Alès, Mines Nancy, Mines ParisTech, Geology Nancy and Armines - as founding members - and, to date, 22 members including industrialists, engineering offices, public institutions, academic institutions, associations, etc.
 
Source : I'MTech
 

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