How Does Mining Impact The Environment?

A small Earth figure thinking about all the ways mining impacts the environment.

Mining is necessary for almost everything we use each day in our modern world.

But extracting minerals can also cause significant harm to the environment and surrounding life – including us.

Are there more sustainable approaches within reach?

Sustainable mining practices aim to minimize harm through various strategies, but are often held back by poor enforcement and lack of proper funding.

Let’s first look at the main types of mining, for a bit of background.

What are the main types of mining?

To understand why mining can be so harmful to the environment, it’s useful to have some idea about the four most common kinds of mining. Just keep in mind that these various styles of mining go by a lot of different names:

Surface Mining. You may have heard this being called open-pit mining or strip mining, and it’s the oldest, most common, and cheapest way to get stuff out of the ground.

surface mining

It basically involves scraping off the top layer of the earth to get at minerals such as iron, copper, diamonds, and other similar components of our everyday life. All of this is done using heavy machinery, and these mines can continue quite far underground.

Underground Mining. This is the classic Seven Dwarfs style of tunneling that’s been used in numerous ways since even before pickaxes were invented.

underground mining

Tunnels can go on for thousands of kilometers through both hard or soft rock, and often involve sunken shafts to bring stuff to the surface, instead of the trucks used in surface mining.

Placer Mining. The gold rush was all about placer mining. It involves separating minerals from sand or gravel, usually using water.

placer mining

Over time, hand panning for gold gave way to modern mining techniques using larger, machinery-driven placer mining like with gold dredging.

Solution Mining. Also known as in-situ leach mining, this is commonly used to mine minerals like uranium, but is also used for others such as copper or gold.

A potash solution mining operation in Utah. USA.

It involves dissolving and separating the desired resource from the ore on site, which is usually done with specific chemical washes.

There’s also marine mining, an especially harmful way of extracting minerals that has the potential to harm many unique, recently discovered species; as well as brine mining which is how lithium is usually extracted.

Each approach to mining has its own pros and cons in different contexts, but also comes with unique impacts on the environment, too.

Why is mining bad for the environment?

With small “artisanal” mining operations growing in the developing world, it’s as important as ever to understand the negative impacts of mining. And this means both from the point of view of the small-scale mining operations themselves, and that of their larger competitors.

Mining operations can be entirely devastating to the local area it occurs in, and it can contribute to wider-scale destruction too. These impacts affect humans and the natural world physically, socially and economically.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of growth in our capitalistic global economy is leading mining companies to invest in more harvesting of natural resources, whether it’s needed right now or not.

So, more mining seems like an inevitability, which is why it’s so useful to understand the harm it can cause. The major destruction from mining comes from one or more of the following:

Habitat destruction

The most obvious damage that mining causes comes from the physical destruction of land, and the ecosystems that exist there. This is particularly true in surface mining, but also plays a part in other types of mining too.

The largest surface mines occupy huge spaces, and all such mines cut a barren, industrial scar into the land where nothing can live. But habitat destruction extends well beyond the actual extraction site of the mines as well.

A massive mining operation in Montana, USA during the 1970's.

Deforestation from surface mining is common, particularly when mining for lead, but all mines tend to lead to extensive biodiversity loss in the wider area too.

Mining operations need transportation infrastructure to function and the resources required to set them up, and all this extra support comes at an alarming cost.

In areas like Brazil, indirect deforestation extends tens of miles from the actual mining sites, and this is usually the case regardless of the type of mining employed. Satellite industries like the illegal wildlife trade also tend to go hand-in-hand with mining operations.

In some cases, mining can lead to the permanent removal of entire ecosystems, particularly in regions where flora and fauna have co-evolved with mineral substrates – as once those substrates are removed, recovery is impossible.

Soil degradation

Mining creates a lot of waste, and depending on the process and the resource being mined, there’s a good chance it’s terrible news for the soil around the mine.

In gold mines, for example, uncontrolled usage of cyanide and mercury from artisanal mining operations pollutes soils. And on a wider industrial scale, the accumulation of waste can extend up to several thousands of hectares from the mining site.

mining soil pollution

Coal mining decreases soil fertility the longer it goes on in an area, and landslides are both caused by mining and exacerbate the soil erosion and desertification that often occurs as well.

The loss of quality topsoil means that the recovery of the land even after the mining operations are complete will be more difficult, and the impacts of pollution from mining waste is not only felt in the soil, but also in the air and water.

Air and water pollution

All this waste in the ground ultimately ends up contaminating the water supply too. This can be exceptionally bad in areas where solution mining techniques make use of chemical extraction processes deep underground.

Acidic, high salinity, or otherwise toxic by-products of the mining processes get absorbed into rock and stone, and leached into the soil and groundwater. Acid mine drainage is particularly damaging to any aquatic habitats around the area, but heavy metals and other contaminants can also enter clean drinking water.

mining water pollution

Emissions from industrial mining machinery are also a serious environmental concern, especially in precious metal mines; in these mines, the ore is often smelted on-site.

Greenhouse gasses are obviously a problem, but heavy metals also enter the air, as well as things like nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. It’s thought that between 4% and 7% of GHG emissions come from mining operations around the globe.

Social impacts

Before we talk about sustainable mining and its challenges, it’s worth bringing the cost to human rights when it comes to mining.

Indigenous peoples are the poster child of numerous mining protests, and for good reason. Violent clashes, among other issues like forceful contact between miners and uncontacted peoples are common, and the loss of life within these groups means a staggering loss of traditional ecological knowledge.

Raoni Metuktire, a Brazilian indigenous leader, speaking about environmentalism at the European Parliament.
Image by greensefa via Flickr

So-called international standards “guarantee” the rights of indigenous people to territories and self-determination, yet mining contracts are still routinely granted to those planning to displace, encroach upon, or evacuate local communities to set up operations.

But the human victims of global demand for precious metals and coal extend beyond the encroachment onto tribal lands. The vast majority of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that ranks very low in economic and political stability.

In the DRC, artisanal mining operations are particularly vulnerable to horrific practices like child slavery, and it’s estimated that there are around one million people living as modern slaves here – 35,000 of whom are children.

A group of miners, including children, posing in front of an artisanal mine in Kailo, DRC.
Image by Julien Harneis via Flickr

A similar story is found in gold mines in Peru, and countless other countries across the developing and developed world. And forced labor in these contexts includes sex trafficking as a commodity for workers in the mines.

In India, countless families are displaced by coal mines, and subterranean mining in Kiruna, Sweden has become so dangerous the town itself is being moved, building by building, to a new location.

On a global scale, the effects of air and water pollution from a single mine can lead to health issues, and diseases like chronic asthma, lung cancer, and even diabetes can stem from long-term exposure to airborne particulates released by mining.

So, is local and global environmental damage a necessary evil to maintain our demand for industrial and consumer goods?

Are sustainable mining practices possible?

The environmental and social consequences of mining vary depending on the techniques used and the materials extracted. Alluvial gold mining, for instance, affects downstream ecosystems; while coal mining pollution often impacts prime agricultural land.

Which means both methods require custom solutions to avoid this. The scale of mining operations, both large-scale industrial operations and small-scale artisanal mining, also influences their potential impact on biodiversity.

Regardless of scale, all forms of mining should aim to minimize their environmental impact, and this isn’t something that corporations are going to self-regulate.

This can only realistically be achieved through changes in approaches across the entire spectrum of stakeholders; something that’s obviously much easier said than done.

Some methods in play already include:

  • Biodiversity offset programs and restoration initiatives
  • Waste management strategies that aim to reduce waste generation, safely store waste, and minimize harmful substance release
  • Community engagement involving consultation, respecting rights and knowledge, and sharing benefits
  • Land rehabilitation that includes comprehensive plans, soil and vegetation management, and more active monitoring

All of these solutions to mining problems come with their own challenges too, and most of the major challenges faced by mining companies revolve around the economic constraints of sustainability.

This is not only the reason for most of the environmental damage caused by mining, but also the failure of sustainable solutions too. For example, revegetation is hampered by companies using non-native species to save money.

The planning, implementation and management of land restoration projects are expensive, and a prime example of where corners can be cut without proper management.

Regulations are also lacking or are simply not enforced, and in many countries with the highest concentrations of resources this leads to extensive oversights in both environmental and human rights contexts.

There are also plenty of social impacts of sustainable mining. Illegal mines employ tens of thousands of people around the world, making them essential to the lives and economies of many developing populations. On the other hand, many of these people are criminally underpaid, and some may not be compensated at all. Still, when mining is managed well it can bring significant economic and social development to a location.

Ultimately, while international standards meetings and government-implemented offset programs go a long way to making people feel good, without enforcement companies simply resort to greenwashing campaigns and factor in the chance of getting caught as a cost of doing business.

Local movements such as the Northern Territory Mining Law Reform in Australia strive to inform citizens and help them exert pressure on local representatives to address these issues.

This is likely the only way the majority of people are going to affect change in mining approaches.

Balancing environmental protection with the need for this economic development and resource extraction, therefore, poses significant challenges and brings with it the need for trade-offs, and the net gain of a developed population needs to be weighed against immediate gains to the environment.

Final thoughts

Mining has significant environmental impacts including habitat destruction, pollution, and soil degradation.

But it can also help or harm communities, depending on how it’s managed.

So how do you feel about the consequences of mining on our planet?

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