Glaciers and icefields in Chile are under threat from mining industry dust, with environmentalists calling for more protective measures to be put in place to safeguard the area from glacial melting.

The country is home to 24,114 glaciers – four-fifths of the glaciers in South America – and has some of the largest icefields in the world outside of the Polar Regions.

Speaking to news agency AFP, climatologist Fabrice Lambert from Chile’s Catholic University, said: “The dust generated by mining can settle on the glaciers, covering the white surface so the particles absorb solar energy that results in rapid glacial melting.”

Some advocates, including Sustainable Chile director Sara Larrain, say Chile should follow in the footsteps of its neighbour Argentina, which has enforced protective measures over its glaciers. However, mining industry members argue such laws are unnecessary.

Joaquin Villarino, president of Chile’s Mining Council, said: “More than 70% of mining activity takes place in areas where there are no glaciers,” adding that under current legislation “there is certain protection that prevents mining companies from damaging existing glaciers.”

The government has also stated that existing rules aimed at protecting the country’s national parks and reserves are sufficient.

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Mining dust is, however, known to pose a threat not only to surrounding land but also to workers themselves. In the US there has been a resurgence in black lung disease among coal miners, which is caused by inhaling coal dust. As such, finding a means of limiting the production of mining dust without eradicating the mining sector is imperative, not just for the environment but for worker safety.

As Lambert explained: “They’re not going to close the mines [in Chile] within the next five years, but we need to find a way to protect the glaciers without destroying the mining industry, which is essential to the country’s economy.”

As a significant portion of Chile’s economy depends on mining – producing a third of global copper – closing the mines is not an option.

So what can companies do to mitigate the impact of mining dust?

In terms of protecting miners, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) encourages workers to wear a continuous personal monitoring device (CPDM), which provides a constant and real-time measurement of exposure concentrations. As such, it allows workers to monitor the safety of their surroundings and take measures to extract themselves from potentially dangerous situations.

Monitoring standards in general must also be improved if an overall reduction in coal dust is to be achieved, with companies ramping up dust control measures and ventilation, equipment maintenance and inspection, and employee training.

In terms of environmental protection measures, the Earth Science Teachers’ Association suggests surfacing haul roads with laterite to reduce dust produced by vehicles, using a collection system at the crushing plant to suck in dust, and using dust monitoring equipment.

Mining Technology’s Mining Safety content is supported by USA mining safety specialists Carroll Technologies Group.