Europe, Can mining ever be green?
As France prepares to dig for lithium in its own backyard, part of the EU’s broader push to create strategic reserves of key raw materials needed for the green transition, activists worry about the environmental impact of mining
Lithium, Gallium, Magnesium, Indium, Niobium. Although these rare metals and minerals appear to belong to the same family, not all were created equal, at least in the eyes of industry.
The European Commission has listed 30 of them it deems strategic for the future of its ambitious green and digital transitions, but for whose supply Europe has become reliant on foreign countries over the years.
Called “critical raw materials” (CRMs), they fall under the European Union’s strategic autonomy agenda. The Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine served to highlight the EU’s dependencies on other nations for natural resources and reminded the bloc which states were in its corner, and which were not.
After concluding that China plays an outsized role in supplying the Europeans with these materials essential to electric car batteries, windmills and solar panels, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new strategy in her State of the Union address, in September 2022: the EU will seek to diversify its trading partners through new agreements. It was also announced that, in early 2023, the Commission will present a regulation on CRMs to create strategic reserves of those materials on European soil.
Geologists have located critical raw materials across the continent. Finland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, where deposits have been spotted, are eager to dig into the earth. Will the Europeans go back to the mines? Some countries, such as those in Scandinavia, have a long and ongoing tradition of mining, while others closed their last coal mines decades ago.
In any case, the issue worries environmental activists. The word “eco-mining” is on everyone’s lips in Brussels as well as in the Member States, and the concept should ostensibly help overcome obstacles to opening new mines.
In its consultation last October and November, the European Commission identified a lack of investment to create an EU supply and noted that permit procedures were long and complex. Opening a mine can take up to 15 years, between the exploration process to the extraction itself. Moreover, these projects are highly scrutinised, and the legislation in individual Member States remains demanding when it comes to exploiting their natural resources.
The consultation also pointed out the environmental risk. “We have to define our standards regarding responsible mining,” MEP Hildegard Bentele, the EPP rapporteur for the resolution adopted on CRMs by the European deputies in 2021, tells The Parliament. “Because a mine is always an intervention into nature. We should not be blurry about it.” Rather than “green” or “sustainable”, Bentele hopes for “responsible” mines: the impact on the environment will never be zero, but it is necessary to do everything in our power to minimise it.
The idea that a mine can be “responsible” is put forward by the French authorities and the companies which have recently announced lithium projects in several parts of the country. France, where mines are still taboo, has high ambitions for the production of this new “white gold” necessary for the batteries of future electric cars.
A boom in demand is expected after the ban on fossil fuel cars comes into force in 2035. In the Massif Central, in the centre of France, the French company Imerys has announced a vein capable of producing 34,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide per year, which translates into 700,000 batteries for future electric cars. It plans to start extracting in 2028.
In the Rhine basin, between France and Germany, several projects aim to extract lithium using geothermal technologies: hot salty water is pumped to the surface, from which operators extract the precious metal before reinjecting the water into the earth. The Australian company Vulcan Energy hopes to produce 50,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide annually starting in 2027. In the same area, some French companies have also successfully passed their first tests of lithium extraction from geothermal brines.
The zone could supply up to 30 per cent of Europe’s lithium needs. Not bad, considering Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for the Internal Market, has set the ambitious target of being “almost self-sufficient in lithium for our batteries by 2025”. But what is going to be the environmental impact of those mines?
Thierry Breton, the EU’s Commissioner for the Internal Market, has set the ambitious target of being “almost self-sufficient in lithium for our batteries by 2025”
In the Massif Central, even if the mine is underground, the industrial operator will still have to pump water to be able to work. And if it uses hydro-metallurgical separation techniques to extract lithium, large quantities of water will be required. The enterprise promises to recycle water, but with scant details on how often and how much.
At the Franco-German border, geothermal technologies also raise eyebrows among the locals. People are afraid of seismic tremors caused by the stress generated underground. Others wonder whether they may be affected by the high level of radioactivity concentrated a few kilometres away underneath their feet.
Even employing so-called “clean” technologies, the new mines don’t convince everyone. Judith Pigneur, an engineer from the French association négaWatt, has observed these new technologies carefully and as well as an outsider can, given that each company is still relatively hush-hush about its extraction process.
“In absolute terms, the environmental impact of CRMs’ exploitation will only increase because deposits will become less and less good and their contents will decrease [in number],” she explains. As a result, companies will have to dig deeper or be more aggressive in the extraction process.
At the European Parliament, the Greens are wrestling with the dilemma of how to ensure the green transition, which requires critical raw materials, while protecting the planet’s remaining resources. There must be some limits to mining in Europe, explains German MEP Henrike Hahn, shadow rapporteur for the European Parliament resolution in 2021: “Obviously, a protected area in Europe, like Natura 2000 [a network of protected areas], are off-limits for mining industries.”
And the recycling of CRMs must be developed and promoted by future EU regulation, with the objective of creating a market of secondary raw materials.
Of the many CRMs, lithium holds a special place. The projected need for batteries will be so huge that many people are uneasy about our ability to maintain stocks. Even those advocating for a reduced consumption of CRMs across the board agree on the importance of lithium. For them, the only hope is to be able to reduce demand in small, incremental ways, with the understanding that it will, in any case, remain high. “Are we going to use lithium for SUVs or for small cars?” wonders Pigneur, the engineer.
Creating reserves of critical raw materials with new mines in Europe will not be enough to meet tomorrow’s needs, no matter the geopolitical and economic urgency, and even with new extra-European trading partners. The CRMs will also have to give way to the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, Parliament Magazine writes.
Modern mining companies are now going to more zero emissions and green eco-responsible extraction technologies
Securing access to commodities is one of the top list items of industrialized countries’ agendas. With eco-sustainability issues and global changes, modern mining companies are now going to more zero emissions and green eco-responsible extraction technologies to harvest the precious underground metals/commodities and foster economic growth of our unsatiated advanced-technological industry.
The mining industry is often associated with dirty activity involving huge tailings/wastes of barren rocks disposed at the surface of the Earth, excavations of the ground endangering workers, damages on building surfaces, roads, and irreversible environmental impacts . This collective-mind conventional old picture might be changed soon by the past decade’s advances in in-situ leaching (ISL) technologies that are now better mastered by the use of 3D computer modeling technology and chemical simulation, making ISL mining technologies a possible substitute to conventional mining in many cases  (Figure 1, above).
First implemented in Wyoming in the 1950s for uranium recovery, in-situ leaching (ISL) or in-situ recovery (ISR) involves injecting chemicals (typically sulfuric acid or ammonium carbonate) called “lixiviants” into porous geological formations that host the ore body (i.e. deposit), recovering the metal/commodities by dissolving them, pumping through production wells the pregnant solution to the surface where metal/commodities are recovered in processing plants, and regenerating the chemical solution (sometimes using biotechnology) for reinjection in wells.
Compared to traditional mining, this technology leaves the ore in the ground and extracts only the metals/commodities of interest, suppressing the huge mining wastes. This technology requires favorable geological conditions (i.e., impermeable layers on top and below the ore body) (Figure 2) to avoid the dispersion of the lixiviant in neighboring aquifers. In the case of uranium deposits, regeneration of exploited ore deposits is thought to be possible after less than 30 years for naturally re-confining possible toxic substances initially associated with the ore bodies but mobilized during exploitation. Groundwater contamination is the critical aspect requiring reagent management during ISL operations. The environmental regulation in many countries is sometimes a limiting factor in the use of ISL as they require that the water quality in the aquifer be restored to its pre-mining use.
The ISL technology (Solvay process) is widely used to extract water-soluble salts, including sodium chloride (halite, NaCl), sulfate (Na₂SO₄), trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate (trona, Na2CO3.2NaHCO3.3H2O)), bicarbonate (nahcolite, NaHCO3), potash (sylvinite, KCl and carnallite, KMgCl3·6(H2O)), and boron, and is often used for ore deposits that are too deep to be exploited by conventional underground mining .
Most uranium mining in the United States, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan is now exploited by ISL. With 46 percent of the annual world production, Kazakhstan is the world’s leading country in uranium mining . In 2021, Kazakhstan extracted about 21,800 tons of U by in-situ leaching (ISL) mining . The capacity of ISL mining of uranium is now superior to that of conventional uranium mines, reaching 57 percent of the world’s production in 2019.
ISL has been successfully developed over the past 20 years for other commodities such as copper, gold, nickel, scandium, rhenium, rare earth elements, yttrium, selenium, molybdenum, and vanadium (). As a historical curiosity, the Chinese were probably the first to use solution mining to produce copper by 907 A.D/, and perhaps as early as 177 B.C. (, , ) In the 1970s, ISR was introduced for copper. It is mostly used as low-cost heap-leaching technology on ground ore and then recovered from solution by solvent extraction electrowinning (SX-EW) or by chemical precipitation . There were several successful natural tests and mines such as recently in the Kupferschiefer underground copper mines in the Lubin region (Poland) within the BioMore European Research project (-), the oxidizing properties of the reagent solution was regenerated using bacteria (Biomining).
A recent paper published in the review Minerals  had investigated the key chemical parameters and 3D computer modeling for optimizing uranium extraction on a hexagonal grid of wells. Further progress is needed to fully understand the complex mechanisms involved in the dissolution processes underground. However, these recent results show that an improvement of about 20 percent in recovery and mining time can be expected by better chemical modeling. Other commodities are under study such as copper (,) and gold .
Rare earth elements (REE), rhenium, scandium, selenium, yttrium, molybdenum, and vanadium were also mined in pilot tests as byproducts of uranium extraction but are often limited in practical uses because radioactive particles are often physisorbed on the metal surface ( ). ISR of copper, gold, nickel, rare earth elements (REE), and scandium has been successfully developed over these last recent years.
With the increasing demand for commodities and rare metals used in advanced space technology, investigations had begun in exploring and exploiting outer space; space agencies have recently renewed their interest in space mining, including ISL biomining , and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) .
In terms of environment, ISR technology extracts ore preserving existing natural conditions with minimal disturbance. In contrast to open-pit mining and underground, the volumes of hydro-metallurgical effluents and mine tailings are smaller. The critical aspect requiring management during an ISR operations is the possible contamination of groundwater by ISR reagents.
Valuable economic aspects of ISL benefits should also be accounted for. ISL involves lower Capex costs for mining development, processing plant, and infrastructures. A lower capital cost is necessary to start ISL production, allowing a modular increase in production and capacity. The Capex, Opex, and common cut-off grades for ISL differ according to commodities but are lower compared to conventional open pit or underground mining approaches, HS Today writes.
Serbia, New energy and mining minister pushes Rio Tinto lithium project forward
Residents of this region and members of the Association Ne damo Jadar have been pointing out since the beginning of the year that “the end of the Jadar project” was only a pre-election promise and that Rio Tinto does not intend to leave and abandon the construction of mines in western Serbia. If there were those who believed the words of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, that the construction of the mine was abandoned, the recent statements of the new Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović, made it clear that the story about lithium in Serbia may have its continuation.
Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the Citizens’ Association “Ne damo Jadar”, believes that the new minister was appointed to this position to “push the project forward”, but that she will not be able to do that.
He points out that he agrees with the minister that any country that does not use its natural resources is at a loss.
“We have agricultural land and a lot of water, which is a resource that is the greatest wealth for the one who owns it, because the future of the world is food, water and air”, emphasized the interviewee of Danas.
He believes that, if the state were to distribute the money it plans to invest in housing to agricultural households, it would be returned tenfold.
The problem, he says, is that the government does not respond to people who live alone from their work and who can freely express their opinions and attitudes and be forgiven for them.
“Their goal is to put citizens in cages, in factories, and make everyone dependent on those companies, so they will have to obey and literally become slaves”, says Kokanović.
That luck is not in mining, he cites the examples of Bor, Majdanpek, Smederevo and Zrenjanin.
“Look at how people live in places where they have mines. Maybe the first generations, ten years after the opening of the mine, lived well and prospered, that’s why now their grandchildren are cursing them, because they left them with mockery and pollution”, he says.
He notes that Bor and Majdanpek are the cities with the highest rate of cancer patients.
He says that these factories operate normally in Serbia, even though they still do not have usage permits.
“They have construction, but they don’t have utility, because they haven’t solved the waste water system, and it’s an open secret in Loznica that unprocessed water from these factories ends up in the Drina. When the Drina is polluted, there is the Sava and the Danube, and we are left without drinking water. When we run out of water, the whole country is in trouble”, he warns.
He notes that money can be obtained in a much simpler and more harmless way, without pollution.
The message to the minister, he says, is to declare decisively whether he is for or against the Jadar project.
“And to confirm for us whether it is true that she received Serbian citizenship ten days before she became a minister, and whether her husband is one of the consultants at Rio Tinto?” “How much of a patriot can one be, to go from a salary of 10,000 euros to 1,000 euros, or is something expected of her in return”, asks Kokanović.
The minister has her hands full
Marijana Petković from the Ne damo Jadar association points out that before making any decision, Minister Đedović should read the proceedings of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) entitled “Project Jadar – What is known?”
“The professional public and the Academy of Sciences gave their opinion on this project, as well as the Faculty of Biology, which conducted a study, but which was never published because it was negative for Rio Tito. Minister Đedović should consider the demands submitted by the Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) and work in the interests of the citizens, as the Constitution obliges her to do.
He concludes that the minister has her hands full, and that the people will not allow her to choose between lithium and water, Danas writes.
Lithium mines are not Serbia’s potential
The Alliance of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS), reacting to the statement of the Minister of Mining and Energy, Dubravka Đedović, that she will consider how to implement the exploitation of lithium, assessed that with the first advertisement, she made it clear why she came to that position, the non-governmental organization announced.
Didn’t anyone instruct the new minister when he offered her to sit in a chair from the white world, that she should work in that position in the interest of the people and the state? Understandably, none of the colleagues could take on that duty, because they would probably choke in the middle of a sentence, SEOS points out.
That association tells the minister that lithium mines are not Serbia’s potential, neither in the economic sense nor in any other sense.
And the fact that our non-renewable mineral in the non-renewable land that feeds us is essential to the world’s renewable energy sources is not our concern. We don’t want green pastures and bills for white world starched shirts to go over our hump, states the SEOS press release, Danas reports.
Zijin triples production at Serbian copper complex
Bor, in north-eastern Serbia, is one of the country’s most polluted cities. While local people protest their toxic air and water, Chinese mining company Serbia Zijin Copper, which runs the city’s large-scale copper mining and smelting complex, is expanding its operations without permits, local consent or transparency. Zijin is one of the many highly polluting Chinese investments undertaken without the necessary environmental and social due diligence.
Since 2018, when the new owner of Bor smelter complex, the Chinese-owned Serbia Zijin Copper started its operations, the lives of the citizens in at least five villages in this area of Serbia have been upended. In an open letter this March the villagers of Ostrelj state that the two companies, Serbia Zijin Copper and Serbia Zijin Mining, are expanding their activities threatening their health, private property, and livelihood.
The villagers are calling on the authorities to stop unauthorized construction and find a solution for all the residents who are trapped between the old and new mines and hills of tailings. When winds blow, the Ostrelj village is coated in toxic dust.
The villagers claim that the authorities have not developed a master spatial plan that would describe the future of their village and delineate the mining complex on their territory and describe the environmental impact and the purpose of facilities that Chinese had been building without permits. An environmental impact assessment for just one facility was put out for public consultations after it had already been built.
According to the villagers and research conducted by the Serbian Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI), the Chinese investors have been getting away with construction conducted without legally required documents and permits.
Meanwhile, Zijin’s mining operations are extending its reach on their territory while the local community representatives say that they are kept in the dark by the local as well as national authorities.
The villagers therefore demand a moratorium on further mining activities before the authorities have created a master spatial plan for relocation of their and six other affected villages and called on Zijin to undertake all protection measures to prevent their further poisoning by toxic dust.
“The Serbian state should stop all the mining activities in Bor and all the constructions that have been implemented without a permit. We also need adequate resettlement plans for the villagers before the work can continue”, said Zvezdan Kalmar, director of the Serbian environmental organizations the Centre for Ecology and Sustainable Development (CEKOR).
The gradual weakening of legal requirements for Chinese investments in Serbia is alarming.
A legal analysis by RERI and Just Finance International shows that China’s influence had an overall negative impact on the legal system in the country. Its business activities increased the number of loopholes in the law, which made exceptions for highly polluting large-scale infrastructure investments, predominantly from Chinese enterprises or financed by Chinese state loans.
The problems have also been addressed in a resolution from the European Parliament 2021.The European Parliament called on Serbia to strengthen its legal compliance standards for Chinese business activities and sent a warning to Belgrade that its behavior is jeopardizing the country’s European accession process.
For several years now, both the Serbian government and the Chinese company have ignored the legal irregularities of the Zijin copper mining and smelter projects. However, some attempts have been made to address the problems in Bor.
For example, in April 2021, Serbian authorities suspended construction work at the Jama mine, core to Bor’s operations, after the company failed to comply with environmental standards. In April 2022, after thousands gathered to protest the project in Belgrade, Serbian authorities halted the operations of Zijin citing environmental pollution. But the attempts did not satisfy the protesting citizens and are regarded as temporary solutions without dealing with the fundamental problem of the operations.
The affected villagers call the government for transparency. They claim that the monitoring of ongoing mining and production activities that could put their lives in peril remain to be ignored by both the Serbian authority and the Chinese who operate Bor cooper mine.
One major uncertainty is what impact the Zijin operations will have on the Krivelj river. The river is of utmost importance for the livelihood of the farming community and the villagers’ fears that Zijin is actively working to change the course of the river since it is blocking their way for a new tailing dam.
The waste from Serbia Zijin Copper operations is deposited on an old dam under which was built a tunnel that secures the Krivelj river’s flow to Ostrelj village. In the end of 2021, the drainage tunnel showed cracks and local media report that toxic substances have leaked into the river. This weakness in critical structure have been identified more than a decade ago, but the authorities failed to tackle them.
In 2007 Serbia started negotiations with the World Bank to build a new drainage system for wastewater to clean that dam. But the country never took to the loan and the project was shelved by 2015. Now, with Zijin expanding its operations more than two times compared with the past and the problem with the dam is still not solved.
The dam holding the toxic waste represent environmental hazard that could not only endanger villages around Bor such as Ostrelj, but also regional capital Zajecar and the town of Negotin. The spill could roll further downstream into the Timok river and all the way to Danube, causing transboundary pollution in Romania and Bulgaria.
So far, the Serbian government, which owns a stake in one of the two locally owned companies has turned a blind eye to various violations of the procedures and Zijin is not making any serious attempts to mediate with the citizens in Bor. Now the pollution is reaching new records in Bor. The expansion of smelter activities has led to an average annual increase of carcinogenic arsenic in air for 10 times over the threshold, according to Serbian experts.
The open letter from the villagers in the Zijin-affected communities Ostrelj was addressed to all the major stakeholders in Serbia including the president Aleksandar Vucic. The villagers feel they have been kept in the dark from the decisions for the expansion of Zijin’s mining operations, fearing the impacts, as well as how they feel as “foreigners in their own country”.
Zijin´s operations in Serbia are among the biggest copper mining operations in Europe and the copper is the number one export product from Serbia to China. Yet, Serbia is only getting 5 percent royalties from Zijin´s revenues which is one of the lowest royalties for mining operations in Europe.
Zvezdan Kalmar believe that the lack of royalties is a problem for Serbia.
“Without this money we won’t be able to regulate and control the negative impact of the mining activities at all”, he said, Just Finance International writes.
Rio Tinto’s Serbian saga offers a lesson in critical minerals
The failure of the Jadar Project in Serbia should be viewed as an opportunity for all role-players to recalibrate their processes in line with ESG principles
The northern hemisphere’s summer of 2022 will be remembered as one of the hottest in recorded history. For example, Nasa reported that June was one of the hottest Junes on record. The UK, in turn, experienced record temperatures in July.
On May 14, the city of Jacobabad, Pakistan, became the hottest city on Earth, when temperatures peaked at 51ºC. Contemporaneously other parts of the world suffered devastating climate change-related fires (such as those that blazed across France) or floods (including the August 8 large-scale floods in Seoul).
These events provide an unfortunate prelude to the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference scheduled for November (better known as COP27), which is now less than three months away. While it remains critical for governments across the world to remain committed to the undertakings provided under the Paris Agreement, words without actions are of little value to those who are being (or will soon be) affected by increasingly severe weather events.
The single most important impediment to this growth trajectory, according to a July 2022 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the supply of critical minerals and metals used in the manufacture of batteries. According to the IEA, battery and minerals supply chains will have to expand tenfold to meet government electric vehicle (EV) ambitions.
Following the increased demand for battery metals during the pandemic the prices of raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and nickel surged. In May lithium prices were more than seven times higher than in early 2021 owing to unprecedented battery demand and a lack of sufficient investment in new supply capacity.
The demand for key minerals such as lithium will only increase as the global community continues to race towards net zero by 2050. Whether or not we will succeed depends on access to the required minerals.
Controversial Jadar Project lithium mine
On April 3 Aleksandar Vučić was re-elected for a second term as president of Serbia, with the coalition formed around his party, SNS, winning the most seats in the National Assembly, albeit falling short of an outright majority. Vučić’s re-election followed the widely publicised January 20 cancellation of what became known as the controversial Jadar Project, the proposed development by Rio Tinto of a $2.4bn lithium mine in Serbia.
While the government’s actions raised new questions surrounding the future of the lithium mining industry in Serbia, in the light of the IEA’s recent report it also poses existential questions for global supply chains.
The cancellation of the Jadar Project followed months of countrywide protests over the potential environmental impact of the project. The affair gave rise to intense speculation over the introduction of a possible blanket ban on lithium mining in Serbia; president Vučić’s previous administration had promised to defer such a decision until after the election.
The introduction of such a ban would prove to be a mistake. The mineral deposits at the heart of the Jadar Project are located underneath a river system in an agricultural area that is prone to flooding, giving rise to a material environmental risk. The Serbian government did not have a direct stake in the proposed lithium mine and so could not justify the project on the basis that it would fill public coffers. The government consequently did not believe it could do what governments elsewhere do when they have a fair deal: politically and publicly defend it.
The Serbian government had hoped to use the project as a basis to attract further investment across the batteries sector, including the manufacturing of batteries and battery-reliant products, such as EVs. However, the government was unable to present to the public concrete assurances that the project would lead to the creation of more than a small number of relatively low-skill mining jobs. As a result there was a widespread sentiment among the Serbian public that the main beneficiaries of the Jadar Project would be European carmakers and consumers, who would benefit from Serbia’s cheaper labour costs at the expense of the Serbian environment.
By December 2021 thousands of people across the country had began protesting, and the matter quickly became the leading electoral issue in the build-up to the general election on April 3 2022. As a result, on January 20 the government announced that it was revoking all of Rio Tinto’s permits relating to the project, with the promise that it would consider introducing an outright ban on lithium mining following the general election.
Although the Jadar Project was ostensibly cancelled over concerns regarding the potential of environmental damage, it is important to note that Rio Tinto had complied with all applicable local laws. The project was cancelled prior to the completion of a final environmental impact assessment, as mandated by Serbian law, meaning the public furore over the potential environmental damage was not supported by a comprehensive scientific assessment.
The failure of the Jadar Project is therefore an important example of a mining project being cancelled owing to reaching a critical level of opposition from the public, also referred to as a loss of the “societal licence” to operate that may not have existed in the first place.
Managing the ‘S’ in ESG
The episode illustrates the reality that public acceptance is the currency on which mining companies trade. Such acceptance of a mining company can make or break a project, including one with strong central government backing. Accordingly, mining companies must be sensitive to the fact that globally the sector is often not trusted by communities for a variety of reasons (often outside the control of the companies themselves).
Companies must become better at convincing communities, authorities and the public that they can be trusted because they have a well developed understanding of the social risk factors that are most relevant to each individual project, rather than adopting an unchanging, one-size-fits all approach. The lack of a social impact assessment in Jadar (with an integrated human rights impact assessment), in line with industry best practice (though not required by Serbian law) proved fatal in this regard.
At the same time, the failure of the Jadar Project cannot rest on Rio alone. Jadar’s host government partner, the previous Vučić administration, expended political capital in promoting and advocating for the project until the affair became a serious electoral risk. The public was not persuaded by arguments that the project had been conducted in accordance with the applicable regulatory regime, largely because the regulatory regime itself simply was not aligned with the public’s evolving expectations. Governments, as well as mining companies, should be mindful of the fact that public-interest projects are always subject to scrutiny under the evolving criteria of societal expectations.
This is not in itself a new concept; it is simply the case that the public expectations on mining companies are increasingly becoming much more demanding than the legal requirements imposed by national regulatory regimes. The episode should be seen as a timely reminder for national regulators and mining companies should recalibrate their processes to be founded in environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles. Moreover, if governments and national regulators wish to remain the final decisionmakers over which mining projects are deemed to be in the public interest, they must ensure that the legal and regulatory regimes in place reflect the evolving expectations of the public in each stage of the development and operation of a mine such as Jadar.
The role of international financial institutions should likewise not be overlooked in this regard. Although they did not feature prominently in the Jadar Project, similar projects in developing countries are often financed (at least in part) by large international financial institutions such as the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation or the US Development Finance Corporation. In view of the importance placed by stakeholders on the reputation of mining companies, the backing of those international financial institutions is often used to buttress the credentials of sensitive projects.
Where this is the case the relevant international financial institutions are well placed to guide, through their well-developed performance standards, both mining companies and governments in navigating the challenges associated with obtaining and maintaining a project’s societal licence. This may include, where appropriate, making the availability of financing conditional on the relevant mining company satisfying certain ESG-linked criteria.
History is the best teacher
It is clear that the failure of the Jadar Project has exposed a breakdown in public trust and fault lines between the expectations of mining companies, governments and the wider public. However, extractive resources which are associated with “green” industries, such as lithium, present a unique opportunity to combine economic development with the advancement of the transition to low-carbon energy sources. Despite the associated challenges, entirely foregoing the extraction of such resources would be a mistake which is likely to have worse environmental consequences in the long run.
Accordingly, rather than resulting in a ban on lithium extraction, the failure of the Jadar Project should be viewed as an opportunity for investors, governments and international financial institutions to recalibrate their processes in line with ESG principles, to facilitate the sustainable growth of the mining sector. To achieve this a delicate balance must be struck between the ability of companies to turn a profit and the need to promote sustainable economic development and combat the effects of climate change in line with societal expectations and the concerns of the broader citizenry, Business Live writes.
Rio Tinto continues to buy land near Loznica
Rio Tinto continues to buy a land in Gornje Nedeljice, a village in the municipality of Loznica. That’s why the locals are wondering if Prime Minister Ana Brnabić really put an end to the Jadar project? They are also concerned by the fact that the President of Serbia, as well as some ministers, are repeating that the biggest mistake is giving up on lithium mining.
Not so long ago in January, after protests organized by citizens throughout Serbia, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić put an end to the cooperation with Rio Tinto. “It’s all over and all requests have been met,” Brnabić said at the time. The Jadar spatial plan was cancelled, and therefore all permits and all agreements with Rio Tinto were cancelled. However, the company has not left Serbia and is still working.
“On the first of August, on the day of the constitution of the National Assembly, Rio Sava bought one household and one plot and transferred them to their own. This terrain is needed for the construction of a high-speed road.
“They didn’t do anything, they just used everything before the elections to calm down people, and it would be a shame if they misused it in the new government and if they would consider that project,” says Zlatko Kokanović, a resident of Gornje Nedeljice.
Apart from the President of Serbia, the current ministers are also saying that the Jadar project should not have been cancelled.
“I used a metaphor that is recognized all over the world, and that is that with lithium Serbia could have invented the Internet. Everywhere in the world when you say that, you think of something revolutionary, of something that fundamentally changes things, that’s what the Internet brought to humanity, it changed business and communication, lithium could have been that chance for Serbia, I will always advocate for better living and business conditions for all citizens of our country”, said the Minister of Construction Tomislav Momirović.
Zlatko Kokanović says that “the point is not what we could get with that lithium, but what we would lose”. “There are tens of thousands of people engaged in agriculture, and now they want to open a factory and employ 500 workers, while 10-15 thousand people will be left without their land and their primary occupation which is agriculture”, says Kokanovic.
The fight for a healthier environment continues also in the parliament. The Democrats are looking for a special session of the Assembly that would produce, as they say, a strategy for the environment, and they say that Rio Tinto was not present at the current level in 2004.
“The topic of Rio Tinto was not of great importance at that time, the mineral was researched all over the world, we could not know what it would turn into at that moment, it only later developed into such a serious problem, and the problem is not that a mine is going to be opened in Serbia, but that ecological standards have not been defined”, said the member of the Democratic party Branimir Jovančićević, Serbian Monitor writes.
Armenia’s environmental crimes committed in Azerbaijani lands are said to cause $285 billion in damages
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev vowed to start legal proceedings at international courts to demand compensation for the damage and ecological terror committed by Armenians in the once occupied Azerbaijani territories.
The announcement was made at a video meeting with the newly appointed special representative of the Azerbaijani president in the Zangilan district.
The president outlined deforestation, illegal exploitation of gold reserves, and contamination of rivers as one of the ultimate examples of the environmental terror conducted by Armenians.
“Fifty to sixty thousand hectares of forest have been completely destroyed. We observed this via satellite. A process of deliberate deforestation was underway, especially in Kalbajar, Lachin, Zangilan and Gubadli districts. This, in fact, is savagery and looting,” President Aliyev was quoted as saying by his official website.
According to him, the world’s second-largest sycamore forest in Zangilan suffered seriously from deliberate deforestation and arson, which were also observed in the Kalbajar and Lachin districts even after the war in 2020. Moreover, the Okhchu River and the Vejnali gold deposit in Zangilan were also subjected to large-scale ecological terror and illegal exploitation.
“The illegal exploitation of the Vejnali gold deposit by foreigners, including foreigners of Armenian origin, will cost them dearly. We know the names of those people. We will expose them to the world and they will compensate us. They will definitely pay compensation for the damage,” President Aliyev said.
“We have now started all the legal procedures … Not a single crime will go unanswered. First, we are calculating all the damage, the process of passportization of all our cities and villages is underway. Video and photos of each building or the ruins of that building are being taken. This is proof, and we intend to appeal to international courts. Preparations are underway.”
According to the preliminary estimates, the amount of material damage caused by Armenians to Azerbaijan’s infrastructure, resources, and citizens totals $818 billion. The environmental crimes caused $285 billion in damages.
The Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly voiced the unprecedented systematic deforestation activities in the Karabakh region, calling for an international investigation into the issue.
Meanwhile, five gold deposits and other natural resources of Azerbaijan in the once occupied territories have been intensively looted by the local Armenian companies and those invited from overseas. Companies such as Vallex Group, First Dynasty Mines, Base Metals, Lydian International, GeoProMining, Vedanta Group, and the Armenian-descent businessmen and entrepreneurs had been involved in illegal mining operations in the Azerbaijani lands. The Franck Muller luxury watch manufacturer company owned by a Swiss tycoon of Armenian origin, Vartan Sirmakes, used gold from the Soyudlu and the Vejnali deposits of Azerbaijan in the production of Frank Muller watches. Sirmakes has reportedly exploited gold worth $302 million.
The contamination of the Okhchu river, one of the eleven rivers of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region, which is home to more than 30 percent of the country’s overall drinking water reserves, has also been a great concern for the Azerbaijani authorities over the years.
Baku blamed the Armenian authorities for not preventing the pollution of the river, the water of which is not used in Armenia and flows into Azerbaijan’s agriculturally important Araz River. The Okhchu river is said to be used as a “collector” by Armenia’s producers for sending away the industrial wastes from the country’s territory and causing agricultural, environmental, and humanitarian disasters in Azerbaijan. The analysis of the samples taken from the Okhchu river revealed many life-threatening elements in the water, including copper, molybdenum, manganese, iron, zinc, and chromium. According to the examination results, the amount of nickel in the river was seven times, iron four times, and copper-molybdenum two times higher than normal, Caspian News writes.
Zijin Mining project is one of the many highly polluting Chinese investments
China’s Zijin Mining is polluting a village in southeastern Europe’s Serbia without permits, local consent or transparency, an environmental activist group claims.
Bor, in northeastern Serbia, is one of the Balkan country’s most polluted cities, according to Just Finance, a Dutch group that advocates for public budgets spent on development and infrastructure finance to contribute to sustainability.
The group said China’s Zijin Mining, which runs the city’s large-scale copper mining and smelting complex, is one of the many highly polluting Chinese investments undertaken “without the necessary environmental and social due diligence”.
“Since 2018, when the new owner of Bor smelter complex, the Chinese-owned Serbia Zijin Copper started its operations, the lives of the citizens in at least five villages in this area of Serbia have been upended,” the group said.
In an open letter this March the villagers of Ostrelj said Serbia Zijin Copper and Serbia Zijin Mining are expanding their activities, which threatens their health, private property, and livelihood.
In 2016, Zijin agreed to pump nearly $1.5 billion into the Serbian copper and gold project and paid $350 million for 63% of state-run Serbian miner RTB Bor Group.
The villagers are calling on the authorities to stop unauthorised construction and find a solution for residents living between old and new mines and hills of tailings. “When winds blow, the Ostrelj village is coated in toxic dust,” Just Finance said.
The villagers claim that the authorities have not developed a master plan that takes into account environmental impact.
Just Finance said an environmental impact assessment for one facility was put out for public consultation after it had already been built, Asia Financial writes.
Rio Tinto faced a rude shock
On the face of it, there seems to be little in the way of connection between the treatment of Novak Djokovic by Australian authorities and the cooling of the Serbian government towards Rio Tinto. The Anglo-Australian mining giant was confident that it would, at least eventually, win out in gaining the permissions to commence work on its US$2.4 billion lithium-borates mine in the Jadar Valley.
In 2021, Rio Tinto stated that the project would “scale up [the company’s] exposure to battery materials, and demonstrate the company’s commitment to investing capital in a disciplined manner to further strengthen its portfolio for the global energy transition.”
The road had been a bit bumpy, including a growing environmental movement determined to scuttle the project. But the ruling coalition, led by the Serbian Progressive Party, had resisted going wobbly on the issue.
Then came the maligning of the world number one tennis player in Australia. Djokovic had been tormented by a brief spell of confinement in quarters normally reserved for refugees kept in indefinite detention, and eventually defeated in the Full Court of the Federal Court. During the course of events, he saw his visa cancelled twice, first by a member of the Australian Border Force, the next time by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke. Along the way, lynch mobs were thrilled that “Novaxx” Djokovic, that great threat to Australia’s vaccinated innocence, was finally on a flight home.
The Serbian government attempted to intervene. President Aleksander Vučić made a plea to the Morrison government to resist cancelling Djokovic’s visa; the Australian Open was the Serbian tennis player’s favourite tournament, one he had won numerous times.
A diplomatic incident, more murmur than bark, was sparked. “In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic,” promised the Serbian premier. But for an Australian government that has flouted international law and fetishized border control, the call mattered little.
In Serbia, Rio Tinto then faced a rude shock. The Vučić government, having praised the potential of the Jadar project for some years, abruptly abandoned it. “All decisions (connected to the lithium project) and all licenses have been annulled,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated flatly on January 20. “As far as project Jadar is concerned, this is an end.”
Branabić insisted, somewhat disingenuously, that this decision merely acknowledged the will of voters. “We are listening to our people and it is our job to protect their interests even when we think differently.”
This is a bit rich coming from a government hostile to industry accountability and investment transparency. The same government also decided to begin infrastructure works on the jadarite mine before the granting of an exploitation permit. Such behaviour has left advocates such as Savo Manojlović of the NGO Kreni-Promeni wondering why Rio Tinto was singled out over, for instance, Eurolithium, which was permitted to dig in the environs of Valjevo in western Serbia.
Zorana Mihajlović, Serbia’s mining and energy minister, preferred to blame the environmental movement, though the alibi seemed a bit forced. “The government showed it wanted the dialogue … (and) attempts to use ecology for political purposes demonstrate they (green groups) care nothing about the lives of the people, nor the industrial development.”
Rio Tinto had been facing an impressive grass roots militia, mobilised to remind Serbians about the devastating implications of proposed lithium mining operations. The Ne damo Jadar (We won’t let anyone take Jadar) group has unerringly focused attention on the secret agreements reached between the mining company and Belgrade. Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the group, is convinced that the mine would “not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives.”
Taking issue with the the unflattering environmental record of the Anglo-Australian company, numerous protests were organised and petitions launched, including one that has received 292,571 signatures. Last month, activists organised gatherings and marches across the country, including road blockades.
Djokovic has not been immune to the growing green movement, if only to lend a few words of support. In a December Instagram story post featuring a picture of anti-mining protests, he declared that, “Clean air, water and food are the keys to health. Without it, every word about health is redundant.”
Rio Tinto’s response to the critics was that of the seductive guest keen to impress: we have gifts for the governors, the rulers and the parliamentarians. Give us permission to dig, and we will make you the envy of Europe, green and environmentally sound ambassadors of the electric battery and car revolution.
The European Battery Alliance, a group of electric vehicle supply chain companies, is adamant that the Jadar project “constituted an important share of potential European domestic supply.” The mine would have “contributed to support the growth of a nascent industrial battery-related ecosystem in Serbia, contributing to a substantial amount to Serbia’s annual GDP.” Assiduously selective, the group preferred to ignore the thorny environmental implications of the venture.
The options facing the mining giant vary, none of which would appeal to the board. In a statement, the company claimed that it was “reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia.” It might bullyingly seek to sue Belgrade, a move that is unlikely to do improve an already worn reputation. “For a major mining company to sue a state is very unusual,” suggests Peter Leon of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. “A claim under the bilateral treaty is always a last resort, but not a first resort.”
Another option for punters within the company will be a political gamble: hoping that April’s parliamentary elections will usher in a bevy of pro-mining representatives. By then, public antagonism against matters Australian will have dimmed. The Serbian ecological movement, however, is unlikely to ease their campaign. The age of mining impunity in the face of popular protest has come to an end.