When Vale recently cut the ribbon on the S11D complex inauguration it expected to create a landmark in the mining industry where high productivity and environmental intelligence are strictly associated. Located in the heart of the Amazon Jungle, in the Brazilian state of Pará, the controversial USD 19,67 billion project not only has an impressive cost but also massive proportions. In total, the company built 63 miles of new railroads, upgraded another 315 miles from single to double track, retrofitted an entire port terminal and invested in the construction of a brand-new processing plant . The attempt was to establish a completely verticalized and sustainable supply chain in the middle of the forest where 90 million tons of iron ore would be extracted, processed and transported every year by Vale . Given the location´s biodiversity and high susceptibility to climatic changes, the stakes were high and the greenfield project had to comply with the industry´s most rigorous environmental standards to receive the operational legal licenses.
Sustainable Solutions Aimed to Address Environmental Challenges
Deforestation reduction and the rationing of water and energy are key challenges today faced by most mining companies during the conceptual phase of their projects. At the S11D complex, the open mine pit is located within the boundaries of a National Forest Reserve and the area hosts the largest plant species biodiversity on Earth. In this sense, the implementation of technologies focused on the reduction of the deforested area and greenhouse gas emissions were of paramount importance for the mitigation of environmental impacts. Vale has heavily relied on automation to address most of these issues. The processing plant was physically separated from the mine and installed in an area outside the national reserve, minimizing the deforestation footprint and preserving over 2.5 million acres of forest. A 6-mile truckless conveyor belt system was developed to carry the ore from the pit face to the plant, eliminating the use of trucks. This innovative solution was implemented in an unprecedented scale in the industry, which allowed a 70% reduction in fuel consumption and 50% in carbon emissions compared to a usual operation  .
The standard iron ore processing techniques also utilize high volumes of water to separate the ore from the gangue, generating a contaminated byproduct that must be stored in tailing dams. These structures are risky environmental liabilities that may present unparalleled consequences in case they collapse. In November 2015, Brazil witnessed the worst environmental disaster of its history when Samarco´s1 tailing dam burst, releasing millions of tons of toxic mud into a river called “Rio Doce”. A few days later the toxic mudflow reached the Atlantic Ocean, and its impact on the regional biome and local climate are still unclear. For the S11D project Vale has developed in partnership with its suppliers a breakthrough system that is capable of dry processing high moisture content iron ore without the need of using additional water. As a result, no tailing dam had to be constructed and the energy-efficient technology reduced the water usage by 93% and electricity consumption by 18k MWh   .
As a major player on its sector, Vale has the capability not only to extend these technologies to other projects, but also to leverage its efforts in favor of environmental friendly solutions as standard practices on the industry. The company should also develop a program to monitor pollution and plant suppression on the area, in order to minimize the impacts caused by the project in the surrounding biome and allowing in the future the use of these same plants in the restoration of the site.
Even though the innovations adopted by Vale at the S11D complex have the capability to disrupt the industry and mitigate the negative environmental impact associated with most mining operations, there are still ongoing concerns related to the real sustainability of these projects. Is it worth it to risk the balance of one of the world´s richest biomes in exchange for a 30-year iron ore exploitation project? The region where Vale has concentrated its operations at the Amazon Jungle will likely continue to raise controversy amongst industry experts. The paradox of having an extremely high iron content soil will constantly face the fact that it is also a region of unparalleled biodiversity. Technology might be able to mitigate several concerns but will it ever be able to completely resolve the environmental effects caused by the mining activities and its possible consequences on the local climate change?
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1 Samarco S.A. is a Brazilian mining company controlled by BHP Billiton and Vale S.A
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