Mining (oil and gas, coal, and metal ore mining in particular) is a controversial sector in society.
On one hand, mining provides jobs, economic boost, and valuable resources for everyday life.
In this guide we look at some of the potential negative effects of mining, potential solutions and mining site restoration.
Summary – Potential Negative Effects Of Mining
Mining is very important to society is various ways, but also has some potential drawbacks
On one hand, mining provides jobs and income, stimulates the economy, and provides us with critical resources such as fossil fuels for energy production, and metal ores (for metals) for a range of applications.
It is especially useful if we can’t get access to these resources by growing them in a lab, or other via other means
In some developing countries for example, mining is the only source of employment, income and livelihood for some people (they depend on it to survive)
But, on the other hand, mining can have wide ranging negative effects on the environment, wildlife and humans
In many countries, mining is one of the leading sectors that produces general waste, along with the construction sector
In some countries, mining is responsible for significant amounts of water use, as well as water waste
Environmentally, potential negative effects of mining can include air, land/soil and water pollution of different kinds.
Mining produces potentially hazardous/toxic tailing waste, and can leach toxic chemicals, heavy metals and air pollutants.
This can lead to air pollution via air contaminants, release of greenhouse gases like methane and CO2, leaching of toxic chemicals into freshwater sources like rivers, lakes and streams, or dumping straight into the ocean, and degradation of huge amounts of land and soil (leading to soil erosion, soil contamination, damage to soil structure etc.).
Sedimentation can be an issue where displaced soil gets into water sources and creates issues, as can subsistence be an issue, where land that has been dug out can collapse.
Lowering of the water table, and coal fires (which can last a long time) can be an issue at some mines.
Mining also uses a lot of water and electricity, and other energy for on-site mining equipment and vehicles – so it can have a large resource footprint
The end product of oil and gas (and coal mining) is also linked heavily to climate change i.e. the burning of fossil fuels leads to carbon dioxide and other emissions
From a wildlife perspective, there can be a loss of habitat, elimination of species numbers (from land clearing and contamination of water and soil), and loss of biodiversity.
From a human perspective, mining workers’ lives and safety can be at risk in a number of ways.
Some mines are reported for human rights violations and for exploiting workers in dangerous conditions or by exposing them to hazardous air and chemicals, and local populations can be displaced or their health put at risk from exposure to mining waste or the chemicals it releases.
Having said this, various reports say that mining has overall got safer according to different sets of death and accident statistics
From a cost perspective, not only can mining operations and on-site expenses be significant, but mining exploration and testing mining sites can be very expensive too
Some mining land sites can never be restored to be anything valuable post mining activity – but, some can be restored in different ways (such as being made into parks).
Some say mining site restoration funds would be better spent buying separate land elsewhere and building up that area for plant/tree life, wildlife and environmental conservation i.e. the mining restoration process can be re-thought and improved
Mining has improved in the last few decades in developed countries, but some developing countries lag far behind in making improvements
Mining can get better in some ways, and some of those ways might include …
– Better environmental, social and wildlife benefit/cost assessments done before readying a mining site
– Better treatment/sterilization of hazardous and toxic chemicals and waste
– More secure dumping and management of tailing waste
– Better reporting on all facets of mining (waste generation and management, pollution and environmental degradation, habitat displacement, having basic worker and local community rights and safety, economic performance, and so on)
– Treat and recycle mining waste where possible (for example – water waste)
– Use of renewable energy on mining sites over diesel fuel where possible
– Targeting unregulated, illegal or poor performing mines
– Having better and more transparent reporting of environmental and human health indicators from mining sites around the world
– Ensuring proper backfilling and mining site clean ups take place after mining operations finish
– Encouraging sustainable and responsible mining practices
– Improving mining legislation and regulations
– Looking at beneficial mining taxes
– Introducing certifications for various types and levels desired mining practices
– Have zero fatality and zero serious injury goals for mining worldwide
– Sustainably manage water use during mining activities
– Look at ways to improve land rehabilitation practices after mining (and have better awareness of irreversible effects of establishing a mining site in a specific location – weigh up against the benefits of establishing that site)
On a society wide level, the use of renewable energy for electricity production and transport may reduce the need for fossil fuel mining, and more efficient recycling and re-use of already mined metals may reduce metal ore mining.
We might also look at above ground alternatives to the resources we currently mine – lab grown resources and science might be able to help us in this regard
Mining provides a valuable service and valuable materials to society, but, it appears there is room for improvement in the industry to reduce it’s negative effects – especially in some regions more than others
What Is Mining?
Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the Earth (wikipedia.org)
Main Types Of Mining
The main types of mining might be surface mining, and underground mining.
Although – surface mining might be more common today.
Main Categories Of Mining
Mining operations can be grouped into five major categories in terms of their respective resources …
[these main categories are] oil and gas extraction, coal mining, metal ore mining, nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying, and mining support activities
… oil and gas extraction remains one of the largest in terms of its global economic importance.
It can depend on the individual country though.
As one example, [In Australia] the top three sectors for employment within the mining industry in 2011 were:
Metal Ore Mining – 34.8 per cent, Coal Mining – 23.6 per cent, and Exploration – 27,300; 13.3 per cent
Coal mining receives attention for it’s claimed impact on the environment and wildlife, carbon emissions, and also as a non renewable resource.
Dependence On, & Importance Of Mined Resources
Mined resources are very important to our everyday lives, with just three examples being:
Coal is still one of the leading energy sources in some of the world’s biggest economies, and natural gas and petroleum also provide a lot of energy
Metals being critical to core sectors like construction, as well as being used as raw materials elsewhere
Various forms of technology depend on Rare Earth and Precious metals
Economic Importance Of The Mining Industry
In addition to these uses of mined resources, the mining industry as a whole is very important to the economy, and also for the number of people it employs.
In the United States, mining has always played an important role.
The total U.S. mining gross output in 2015 amounted to 449 billion U.S. dollars, a notable decrease from the gross output in the previous year.
In the same year, the whole sector employed around 748 thousand people.
Which Resources Are Mined The Most?
In terms of volume, the most exploited commodities worldwide are coal, iron ore, bauxite, and potash.
In 2016, there were a total of 13,089 mining operations that reported mine operator employment.
The commodity breakdown was 1,289 coal, 306 metal, 906 nonmetal, 4,298 stone, and 6,290 sand & gravel mines.
These numbers can change though depending on the country, how mined resources are measured, and so on.
Which Countries Play An Important Role In Mining?
It depends on the mined resource in question.
China plays an important part worldwide, but so do countries like the US, Russia and Australia.
China and the United States are the top coal producing countries
Additionally, China is the world’s leading country in the mine production of gold
… China is becoming the top mining country for many commodities, especially for the highly demanded rare earths, of which China produced over 83 percent of the global production in 2016.
What Does The Mining Process Generally Involve?
Generally it involves:
Prospecting and exploration for ore bodies or other resources
Analysis of the profit potential of a proposed mine
Extraction of the desired materials, and
Final reclamation of the land after the mine is closed (the process of restoring land that has been mined to a natural or economically usable state)
Potential Negative Effects Of Mining On The Environment & Wildlife
The effects of mining on the environment and wildlife will be different from country to country.
Different mining practices and variables such as regulations and laws can play a part
In general though, mining can impact the land/soil, water, air, and all different types of wildlife and living wild organisms.
Mining impact can occur:
1. When the land is cleared and modified for conversion into mining use,
2. During mining operations, and
3. Residually after the mining site is abandoned or restored and operations have finished
The environmental impacts at the various stages might be:
– Waste pollution of various kinds
Hazardous and toxic waste, contaminant materials, and chemicals and general waste pollution that get into the environment and cause pollution, degradation of soil, water and air quality, and impact the short term and long term health of wild life
This waste includes waste like mining tailings (which can be a toxic slurry of crushed rock, water and chemicals), acidic waste water (via acid mine drainage), heavy metals like mercury, lead, arsenic, cyanide, radioactive waste residue, and toxic gases
Waste can be created and polluted during the mining process, but with abandoned mining sites, there can also be residual waste and contaminants left behind
If we take mining tailings for example, they can be disposed of in tailing ponds or impoundments, and these waste management techniques can sometimes fail, or lead to leaching of tailing chemicals into the environment
But, there’s many other examples of waste pollution from mining
There’s many forms of land and soil degradation, with soil pollution and soil erosion being just a few
Hydraulic blasting and soil contamination from chemicals are two examples of activities that can cause it
– Water pollution and contamination
Toxic and hazardous chemicals and waste get into water sources directly and indirectly.
There’s a two fold effect, as water pollution also leads to a reduction in the water supply.
From gases emitted during mining activities, or that are released from underground
Forests can be cleared to convert land into mining sites and operations
– Loss of biodiversity, habitat loss and ecosystem damage
From land clearing, and mining operations
– Mining fires
Can burn for decades, release fly ash and smoke laden with greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals – leading to air pollution
– Releases GHGs like methane
– Carbon emissions
From the burning of fossil fuels for energy for mining operations
– Can impact water sources and cycles
Loosened soil can wash down riverways and disfigure river channels, and contribute to sedimentation
Can also lower the water table, changing the flow of groundwater and streams.
– Formation of sinkholes
When mining weakens the soil and land support structure, and sinkholes become a risk
– Open holes
In addition to sinkholes, giant open holes can be left behind that are never backfilled or covered up, and there can be several problems associated with them
– Fracking, and ocean mining
The practice of fracking is controversial and can have negative effects
The practice of ocean mining is controversial and can have negative effects
[Mines in China can release toxic gas containing many chemicals]
[Mining has resulted in] social conflict, human rights violations and environmental devastation across Asia, Latin America and Africa …
Colorado in the US has experienced a toxic spill from an old gold mine
A new atlas of 600 international mining and oil companies has identified more than 1,500 ongoing conflicts raging over water, land, spills, pollution, ill-health, relocations, waste, land grabs, floods and falling water levels [across the world]
– theguardian.com, and ejatlas.org
In 2000, it was estimated that 3,500 tailings impoundments existed, and that every year, 2 to 5 major failures and 35 minor failures occurred …
… submarine tailings disposal (STD), which disposes of tailings in the sea … is illegal in the United States and Canada [but] is used in the developing world.
A resource for the comprehensive environmental effects of mining is …
The environmental impact of mining (wikipedia.org)
Types Of Mining That Can Have A Negative Environmental Effect
Strip mining, underground mining, open pit mining, heap leaching, and brine mining might all be more environmentally damaging forms of mining …
Strip Mining [and underground mining might both have] extensive environmental impact …
Open pit and underground mining can have their issues … [and] Other types of mining that can result in environmental damage are Heap Leaching and Brine Mining
[Mercury used leads to mercury tailings, and their improper disposal can lead to pollution and contamination]
What Might Be More Environmentally Friendly Types Of Mining?
web.mit.edu discusses some of the potential environmental and safety advantages of In Situ Leach Mining over conventional mining
[Some of the advantages might relate to minimal surface disturbance, no tailings or waste rock, no ore dust or direct ore exposure to the environment, and a lower consumption of water for the mining process]
[However, strong acids used are a concern, and] the low pH of ISL mining wastewater can result in acidification of the surrounding environment.
Potential Negative Effects Of Mining On Resource Depletion
The argument with mining and resources like fossil fuels for example, is that they are a non-renewable resource, and continued mining will lead to resource depletion – which is not sustainable.
In energy use for example, some people argue that more sustainable and renewable sources of energy include solar and wind (although solar and wind still currently use fossil fuels to make solar and wind equipment)
Potential Negative Effects Of Mining On Humans
Like the negative environmental effects of mining, the negative human/social effects of mining depend on variables like laws and practices in place, and can differ country to country.
Effects might relate to:
– Basic human rights, safety, working conditions, injury, and death
A few specific effects might include:
– Mining work can have occupational hazards for injury, impairment and health conditions, and even fatality risks for mining workers
Risks might include coal dust and rock dust inhalation, mining accidents such as collapses and rock falls, coal fires, exposure to excess heat, hearing loss from equipment, and more
Exposure to toxic chemicals and gases, as well as waste, can also lead to short term or long term health consequences
Coal mining and sub surface mining in particular might present risks to workers
– Mining can displace local communities
Due to land rights issues, subsidence, and other factors
– Mining can pollute living environments and contaminate resources
Such as polluting/contaminating nearby water sources and also reducing water supply, but also degrading air quality with air pollution
This can impact health but also livelihoods
[Countries with the most gold, coal, copper and silver mine disputes, ranging from longstanding legal disputes, to armed conflicts, might include] India, Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and the Philippines …
The companies whose mines have attracted the most accusations of human rights abuses and environmental conflict are some of the largest in the world … Between them they are involved in 75 conflicts in countries ranging from Colombia, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the US, Zambia and the Philippines, says the database.
– theguardian.com, and ejatlas.org
[there has been] social conflict and human rights violations across Asia, Latin America and Africa.
[Coal mining can present a range of health risks and conditions to workers and those living nearby, as well as creating toxic levels of heavy metals]
Safety has long been a concern in the mining business, especially in sub-surface mining.
Government figures indicate that 5,000 Chinese miners die in accidents each year, while other reports have suggested a figure as high as 20,000.
Mining accidents continue worldwide, including accidents causing dozens of fatalities …
Coal mines had the highest hearing loss injury likelihood.
Further Resources for mining dangers and safety are:
Accidents in mining (wikipedia.org)
Safety and dangers in coal mining (wikipedia.org)
Why are China’s mines so dangerous? (bbc.com)
Potential Improvements In Mining Safety In Recent History
It appears that fatalities may have decreased in mining activity in recent years, and injury frequencies may have levelled out or decreased.
Overall, mining might be getting safer, but there might still be work that can be done to decrease risk to humans, and decrease accidents, injuries, health conditions and deaths.
While mining today is substantially safer than it was in previous decades, mining accidents still occur.
The amount of mining fatalities among 28 of the world’s 40 largest miners which disclosed their safety statistics has reduced by 37 per cent.
Out of 22 companies which reported injury frequency rate statistics, 15 reported improvements or remained consistent in 2017 with the previous year.
More than half of the fatalities disclosed occurred in markets such as India and South Africa.
How Much Water Does Mining Use?
In 2015, mining withdrawals in the US were 1% of total water withdrawals
Read more about which industries use the most water in this guide.
Energy & Electricity Use By Mining
Mining uses energy and electricity remotely (and often not connected to the main power grid), diesel generators can be used for mining, and cost of electricity generation can be high due to transport and security costs
There’s also the total amount of energy mining uses when you consider electricity, but also fuel (such as petroleum and diesel) for mining equipment, vehicles and material transport to and from mining sites (as well as travel for mining workers)
How Much Waste Does Mining Does Mining Produce?
Industrial waste is hard to measure and report.
But, there are some sources that report industrial waste with mining included (read for full sector %’s):
Waste generation in EU-28 in 2012 by sector was:
Mining & Quarrying – 29%
Estimated Total Annual Waste by Sector in the UK in 2004 was:
Mining & Quarrying – 28.8%
In 2008, total waste generation in the EU-27 by sector was:
Mining – 27.8%
In addition to quantity of waste, the damage of hazardous and toxic waste should be assessed i.e. some lower quantity waste types can be more damaging that high quantity waste types.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Mining
Mining releases GHGs from fossil fuels used as fuel for mining machinery, but also methane in the Earth’s rocks and ground.
Many mines produce methane as a waste product.
Coal mines are responsible for approximately six percent of the methane that is released due to human activities.
Resources and stats on greenhouse gas emissions from the mining sector:
Emissions from mining sector in Australia (environment.gov.au) (refer to direct emissions in the industry sector)
Potential cost of emissions from the mining sector (eco-business.com)
US greenhouse gas emissions by sector (epa.gov)
CO2 levels of mining worldwide (statista.com)
Potential Solutions To The Negative Effects Of Mining
Given that fossil fuel and metal ore mining are two of the more common types of mining, two avenues to explore that might reduce the negative effects of mining are:
– Focus on how using renewable energy can reduce fossil fuel mining, and
– Focus on how recycling and re-using metals already mined out of the ground and in use can save us from future metal ore mining (this will be particularly important in the future with the heavy use of batteries for energy storage and electric cars)
Apart from that, some other potential solutions to look at to reduce the negative effects of mining might be:
– An assessment on the local wild life can also be done prior to mining operations taking place to assess the risks in starting mining operations.
– But, once an area is mined – there’s not a lot that can be done apart from restoring habitats in the mining site restoration process.
– Some effects of mining might be irreversible, such as species elimination from a particular area.
– Consider how economic incentive influences things … What onegreenplanet.org indicates is that ‘Local governments are often swayed by the large mining corporations with promises of jobs and other financial rewards and ignore the costs to health and the environment’. So, the opposite of this would be to financially incentivize environmentally friendly mining, or economically incentivize alternatives to mining that can meet demands for resources.
– Consider environmentally friendly and sustainable mining practices
– Consider the potential impact that mining certifications and standards could have
– Invest in sustainable mining technology and equipment
– Better and more widely available cost/benefit analysis reports done on each major new mine set up in a country that is made available to the public
– Consider how renewable energy and clean energy sources might replace fuels like diesel at mining sites. Wikipedia.org indicates that cost savings for renewables can reach up to 70%
– Understand how recycling (of materials like metals) can reduce the need for more new mining
– Consider shut downs or penalties (such as fines and taxes) for mining companies and mines that violate certain environmental regulations and standards
– Better data collection on, and reporting of mining waste, hazardous chemicals and substances, and waste and chemical/substance management
– Better waste management of mining waste
– Better treatment and/or storage of hazardous or toxic mining by products and waste
– Ensure mining sites are cleaned up of residue, backfilled if required, and the environment is restored according pre-mining briefs
– Petitions and social pressure can sometimes stop mining from going ahead
… [one positive example is that] the US company Molycorp spent 10 million USD on its paste-tailings operation, but the water and chemical reagents it was able to recycle saved have already paid for the instalment, in addition to generating less waste.
Humans, Human Health, & Human Safety
– Have regulations and laws in place to protect workers’ rights and health/safety, as well as of the surrounding human community (including indigenous communities)
– Have better data collection and reporting on key mining safety stats
– Have safety procedures and reviews in place for mining sites, and track safety performance of sites and companies
– Have more awareness of risks at the pre mining stage, planning for risks, and more focus on minimizing risks on mining sites … companies and workers should both be involved
– Have proper safety equipment, tools and practices for miners such as proper ventilation, hearing protection, and spraying equipment with water
– Have comprehensive accident or incident investigations and reports, and make this data widely available to other mining companies and operations so improvements can be implemented ASAP
– Have a zero fatality goal for mining worldwide
– Have a zero serious injuries goal for mining worldwide
– Place specific focus on the safety of mining in developing countries and poorer regions
[Consider how] automated technologies [can] increase efficiency and reduce human involvement in high safety risk operations
More comprehensive and detailed safety reporting from countries and businesses – China in particular [could provide better disclosure of safety statistics by companies]
Other Resources on solution for worker safety are:
Providing for the safety of miners (web.mit.edu)
web.mit.edu also has a resource page on international regulations
Land Rehabilitation After Mining
Mining companies in some countries are required to follow stringent environmental and land rehabilitation regulations.
However, sometimes, some of the effects of mining are irreversible, or can take a long time to restore back to pre-mining conditions … even after land rehabilitation.
In some countries, land reclamation may involve:
– an environmental impact assessment
– development of an environmental management plan
– mine closure planning (which must be done before the start of mining operations)
– and environmental monitoring during operation and after closure
However, in some areas, particularly in the developing world, government regulations may not be well enforced.
Since 1978 the mining industry has reclaimed more than 2 million acres (8,000 km²) of land in the United States alone.
This reclaimed land has renewed vegetation and wildlife in previous mining lands and can even be used for farming and ranching.
Restoration ecologists increasingly accept that it is not practically possible to replace what has been destroyed [once an area has been mined].
Rather than trying to paper over the cracks with mine restoration, it might be more effective to divert funding from mine site rehabilitation programs and use the money to buy and manage public and private nature conservation reserves.
18. http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/regulation.html (proposed international regulations on mining to protect the environment and worker safety)
24. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions (refer to direct emissions)