• What the biggest mining project in the world means for the environment   

Environmental Laboratory

What the biggest mining project in the world means for the environment   

Jan 12 2024

The commencement of the world's largest mining project in the Simandou mountains of Guinea, a $20bn venture involving iron ore extraction, rail, and port development, has profound implications for the environment. Spearheaded by Rio Tinto in partnership with the Guinean government and several global companies, including five from China, this project, after 27 years of delays and challenges, is poised to reshape the landscape of industrial mining and its environmental impact. 

The Simandou project stands out due to its sheer size and complexity. It involves the construction of two major iron ore mines and a 552km railway snaking through Guinea’s mountainous terrain to a deepwater port on the Atlantic coast. Rio Tinto’s share of the total cost is estimated to be $6.2bn. The project is significant not just for its scale but also because of the high-grade iron ore it aims to extract, considered the "caviar of iron ore" with more than 65% iron content. 

The scale of environmental damage could be colossal. The construction of mines and railways will inevitably lead to significant land disturbance. The removal of vegetation, topsoil, and the alteration of landforms could lead to soil erosion, a decrease in soil fertility, and disruption of local ecosystems. Mining activities, including drilling, blasting, and transportation, generate particulate matter and other air pollutants. The high-grade iron ore processing might reduce emissions compared to lower-grade ores, but the sheer volume of activities poses a considerable challenge. Mining operations and ore processing require substantial water resources, which could strain local supplies. The risk of water pollution from mine runoff, containing heavy metals and other contaminants, poses a significant threat to local water bodies and groundwater. The Simandou mountains are in a region of rich biodiversity. Large-scale mining and infrastructure development could lead to habitat destruction, loss of flora and fauna, and disruption of ecological balance. 

The high-grade iron ore from Simandou is particularly suitable for direct reduced iron technology, which uses hydrogen and carbon monoxide instead of coke. This method is a part of the global steel industry’s efforts to decarbonize, a crucial step given that traditional steelmaking is highly carbon-intensive. By providing suitable ore for cleaner steelmaking processes, the Simandou project could indirectly contribute to global decarbonization efforts, especially in China, the largest steel producer. 

The project's advancement under various political regimes in Guinea illustrates the complexities of large-scale industrial projects in politically dynamic regions. The involvement of multiple international partners also highlights the growing trend of co-development in the mining sector, necessary for sourcing metals for the future green economy. 

The launch of the Simandou project marks a significant moment in the mining industry, bringing both opportunities and challenges. While it holds the promise of contributing to the global shift towards greener industrial processes, the project's scale raises serious environmental concerns. Balancing the economic benefits with the imperative to protect local ecosystems and communities will be critical. The success of this project in minimizing its environmental impact could set a precedent for future mining endeavors worldwide. 

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