What are the Environmental Effects of Mining?

From the team at Atkinsonsbullion,

In modern life, we rely on the valuable minerals contained below the surface of our planet. From gold and diamonds to coal and uranium, they play an essential role in many aspects of our daily lives. The mining industry is continuing to grow, with predictions estimating its value could rise to as high as $2775.5 billion by 2027. However, the way that it operates can be destructive, and lead to negative effects on our environment.

In this article, we look at the biggest environmental impacts of mining, ranging from habitat destruction to climate change. Understanding these effects is crucial in order to promote more sustainable mining practices going forward, protecting the world around us.

The Environmental Effects of Mining

A look at the Environmental Effects of Mining
Mining transport in Devnya, Bulgaria.
By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49265919

Habitat Destruction

Mining activities usually require large areas of land to be cleared in order for the conditions to be workable. Whether surface, underground, in-situ or placer mining, this means destroying many natural wildlife habitats, such as forests, wetlands and many other ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity and destruction of habitats can have devastating consequences, as many species rely on these habitats for survival.

Mining can also impact the surrounding areas by disrupting the natural balance of ecosystems. The destruction taking place will destabilize the land, leading to soil erosion and susceptibility to landslides – causing more widespread consequences. Placer mining in particular has the potential to contaminate water supplies and poison local ecosystems due to mercury deposits being disturbed.

Wildlife may begin to migrate away from these ecosystems due to the instability, meaning they will then go on to reside in another ecosystem and consequently disrupt another food chain of its own. As a result, it’s crucial to monitor the potential effects of large mining operations and to implement measures to minimize the impacts as much as possible. With in-situ mining, tests are usually done to determine if the soil is permeable enough to prevent the chemicals from devastating local ecosystems.

Water Pollution

During the extraction process of precious metals, large amounts of water are required in order to rinse and process the ore. With almost three tonnes of ore needed to produce enough gold for one typical wedding ring, vast amounts of water are used. After the process has taken place, the water is contaminated with a variety of harmful chemicals and heavy metals that are typically used in the cleaning process.

Known as ‘mine wastewater’, it cannot be disposed of as typical wastewater would be, and instead requires specific procedures to ensure it is disposed of safely. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and mine wastewater often finds its way into nearby rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, polluting them with harmful contaminants. This not only impacts the wildlife in the surrounding areas, but goes on to impact aquatic life and consequently, human health. This is because the fish will start to have a buildup of the toxic substances within their bodies, making them unsafe for human consumption.

Another way water becomes polluted through mining is as a result of acid mine drainage (AMD). When rocks containing sulfide materials are excavated, they react to oxygen and water to create sulphuric acid – AMD severely degrades water quality and renders it virtually unusable.

Air Pollution

Obtaining highly sought-after minerals requires drilling, which in turn, causes large quantities of dust to be released into the air. These particles can contain harmful substances resulting from both the ground and the machinery used to mine, including silica, asbestos and other heavy metals. If inhaled, these can pose a significant risk to human health while also taking a toll on the environment.

Mining operations also release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as part of the process. The heavy machinery is typically powered by fossil fuels, such as coal, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other harmful gasses can also be released in the extraction process, including methane, which have a negative effect on our environment. A study published in the Journal for Greener Production found that global emissions from the mining sector are estimated to cost around $3 trillion in damages each year.

Climate Change

The consequences of these fossil fuels being burned and released into our atmosphere can be devastating. The greenhouse gasses generated in this process go on to affect our ozone layer, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is a primary cause of global warming.

To add to this, when mining operations clear large areas, typically mass deforestation comes with it. Without trees to absorb the harmful carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen through photosynthesis, the resulting greenhouse gasses are even more potent. The resulting climate change can go on to cause our sea levels to rise and contribute to more extreme weather patterns, which in turn can have devastating effects to both natural ecosystems and local communities.

Deforestation from mining affects up to a third of all global ecosystems, and the numbers are expected to increase. Shockingly, more than a third of all the mining-related deforestation of the last twenty years has occurred over the last five years alone. As the demand for metals and other organic compounds rises, the mining industry needs to seriously consider how to amend its practices to protect our planet.

Building a Sustainable Future

While mining remains an essential industry, the way that many mines operate needs a major overhaul. With all of the technology and resources available to us in the modern day, there’s no excuse for these mining corporations to continue operating as they are. In fact, the mining industry is responsible for a staggering 10% of the world’s carbon emissions alone, without considering any of the other harmful impacts.

It’s essential for the industry to look towards implementing more sustainable practices, both to protect the planet and all life that resides on it. By doing this, we can preserve our planet’s natural resources and work towards a more sustainable future for generations to come.