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Environmental Impact of Mining

Environmental Impact of Mining

Mining refers to removing geological resources from the Earth, usually used as raw material. Mining for a wide range of materials occurs in many different parts of the world. Coal, gold, iron, and sand are some of the most commonly mined resources. Humans have been mining for thousands of years, with the earliest known mine found on Eswatini's Bomvu Ridge. This mine, the Ngwenya Mine, is over 40,000 years old, based on radiocarbon dating. Despite being very useful to humans, mining often has a detrimental effect on the surrounding environment and animal species, including the surrounding human populations. In the following, we will go over the environmental impact of mining, including both negative and positive effects, and provide some examples.

Environmental Impact of Mining Activities

Mining can have numerous, primarily negative, impacts on the surrounding environment, ranging from the exacerbation of climate change to the reduction of global and regional levels of biodiversity.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of different species of organisms living in a given area, which may include the entire planet.

Negative Impacts of Mining on the Environment

Many negative impacts can result from mining activities.

Some examples include climate change, deforestation/habitat destruction, pollution, soil erosion, human-wildlife conflict, and the loss of biodiversity.

The following are some of these examples in greater detail and some notable examples.

Deforestation/habitat destruction

The construction of mines often requires a large area of land, and these areas are often the location of previously undisturbed natural habitats. This results in the removal of large areas of habitat (usually forest) to build the mine, followed by other negative impacts from the presence of many people moving to, living, and working around the mine.

These other negative impacts include poaching of wildlife, overfishing of rivers/wetlands, and increases in the level of human-wildlife conflict, particularly in areas where large predatory species (e.g., big cats and crocodilians) are found.

Local indigenous human populations are also often negatively affected by violent conflict miners.

Pollution

Many of these mines discharge mining waste materials into adjacent river systems, which can have widespread and far-reaching impacts downstream. Hazardous chemicals, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury, are contained within these waste materials and end up in many downstream rivers, lakes, and wetlands that communities use for fishing and drinking water. Through a process called biomagnification, these hazardous chemicals build up in the tissue of fish and affect other organisms further up the food chain that use the fish as a food resource (including humans).

Biomagnification refers to the increased build-up of a toxin or toxins within organisms going in succession up the food chain.

It is estimated that worldwide, mines discharge 180 million tons of hazardous materials into water bodies annually, resulting in widespread damage to fish stocks and contaminated drinking water.

The most egregious offender is the Grasberg Mine in the Mimika Regency of Central Papua Province of Indonesia, jointly owned by the Indonesian government and U.S. company Freeport-McMoRan. The Grasberg Mine discharges around 80 million tons of waste, a staggering 44.4% of the worldwide total, annually into the Aikwa River and the Arafura Sea.

Loss of Biodiversity

Sand mining is big business in India, with illegal sand mining operations becoming a major environmental and security issue in parts of the country. The mining activity has the potential to impact local biodiversity levels severely.

In addition to this, an estimated 418 people were killed due to conflict with sand miners (referred to as the "sand mafia") between 2020 and 2022

Illegal sand mining operations around the Son Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh are believed to have decimated the local population of Indian gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) through the loss of basking and nesting habitat, as well as the flooding of nests and generalised habitat degradation.

The Indian gharial is a large, slender-snouted crocodilian species that is much more sensitive to environmental disruptions than other crocodilian species.

It was found that the number of adult gharials present within the sanctuary decreased from 72 individuals in 2016 down to a mere 20 in 2021.

Climate Change

Coal mining provides humans with an inexpensive form of fossil fuel, which is probably why around 40% of the world's population currently relies on coal power. Coal mining and its use also have disastrous consequences for the environment, biodiversity, and human health. However, coal's most widely known impact is on the Earth's climate.

Coal burning currently accounts for around 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and contributes significantly to anthropogenic climate change.

The underground mining associated with coal can also result in sinkholes, which cause the mine to collapse.

Human-wildlife Conflict

The islands of Bangka and Belitung, off the southeastern coast of South Sumatra in Indonesia, are the site of intense tin-mining activity.

Indonesia is the world's leading tin supplier, and 90% of that tin is mined on the Bangka and Belitung islands.

These tin mines are often built in and around the island's major river systems and wetlands, devastating the local environment and removing vital mangrove and freshwater swamp habitats. This has resulted in diminished fish stocks and biodiversity loss on the islands. It has also had an unexpected impact- increased attacks and predation on workers and residents by saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus).

From 2013 to 2022, at least 83 people were attacked (32 killed) by saltwater crocodiles within the islands, with many incidents occurring in and around active and abandoned tin mines.

It is believed that the reduction in fish stocks (the crocodile's natural prey), combined with the increased presence of humans in the former crocodile habitat, has resulted in increased levels of conflict.

Environmental Impact of Mining Figure 1: Tin-mine Study Smarter

Figure 1: Tin mines, such as Lake Kaolin on Belitung Island, have become sites of intense human-crocodile conflict. Source: Wiki Commons

Positive Impact of Mining on the Environment

While the bulk of impacts mining has on the environment are negative, a small number of positive impacts have also been noted. The most commonly mentioned positive impacts relate to how mines create jobs and improve infrastructure for local communities, reducing the burden on the natural environment. In practice, however, this is rarely the case, as mines often result in the unsustainable exploitation of the local environment and attract violence. There are, however, some genuinely positive impacts that can come from mines.

Abandoned mines, in particular, often serve as critical habitats for some species, including those threatened with extinction. In fact, 64% of the bat species in the United States use abandoned mines as a habitat for various purposes, including foraging/hunting, hibernation, nursing, and roosting. Other animals that use abandoned mines include amphibians, birds, reptiles, and rodent species.

Environmental Impact of Gold Mining

Gold mining is a particularly damaging form of mining that involves the removal of gold from geological deposits. Many gold mines worldwide have recently been associated with environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

Some of the worst offenders have been in the nation of Papua New Guinea, which comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.

For nearly 30 years, the Ok Tedi Mine caused massive environmental damage along the Ok Tedi River tributary and the Fly River in Papua New Guinea's Western Province.

Owned by Australian company BHP Billiton (the largest mining company in the world)

The Ok Tedi Mine was constructed in the open-pit technique to extract copper and gold from the Star Mountains Rural area of North Fly in the early 1980s. It was estimated that around 90 million tons of unused mined material and eroded soil were discharged from the mine into the downstream portions of the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers annually, resulting in widespread damage and degradation, including contaminated water, death of large numbers of fish, and deforestation. The deposition of materials also resulted in the riverbed being raised, thus causing flooding and the destruction of crops and transportation lines used by the roughly 50,000 people living downstream.

Another example from Papua New Guinea is the Porgera Gold Mine in Enga Province.

Owned by Canadian company Barrick Gold

While the mine is known to be one of the ten most productive gold mines on Earth, it has been the cause of environmental devastation and the site of intense violence. The mine is known to discharge millions of tons of mining waste materials into its namesake river annually. It is the site of murders, sexual violence, and small-scale warfare between clans.

Ways to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Mining

There are a few ways that mines can be made to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

First and foremost, stricter enforcement of mining regulations and ceasing illegal mining activities could substantially reduce problems in some areas. However, some of the largest offenders are large multinational corporations engaging in mining that, while technically "legal", results in widespread environmental damage. Therefore, laws must be changed, and they must be enforced.

Mines may also function as a natural habitat for many species, even in active use, if the proper regulations are followed.

Proper mine site management and maintenance are also vital to increasing sustainability.

  • For starters, biologists should be hired to conduct appropriate environmental impact surveys before mine construction to determine which species and habitats will be affected.
  • During actual mine operation, limits should be placed on the number of resources that can be extracted, and efforts should be made to recycle as much waste material as possible.
  • Any leachate from the mining operation should be effectively neutralised so that the toxic substances within can be removed and oxidised before entry into the ecosystem.

Leachate is a liquid contaminated by the materials through which it has passed.

  • Once mining operations have ceased, efforts should be made to restore the area to its natural state.

This post-mining restoration is commonly referred to as mine reclamation and may involve the reforestation of the former mine area or even the reintroduction of wildlife species.

Reforestation is the process of replanting and reintroducing an area with trees and vegetation.

Environmental Impact of Mining - Key takeaways

  • Despite being very useful to humans, mining often has a detrimental effect on the surrounding environment and animal species, including the surrounding human populations.

  • Some examples of the negative environmental impacts of mining include climate change, deforestation/habitat destruction, pollution, soil erosion, human-wildlife conflict, and the loss of biodiversity.

  • One of the positive environmental impacts of mining is that some species use abandoned mines as vital portions of their habitat.

  • Gold mines are particularly damaging forms of mining associated with numerous reports of environmental degradation and human rights abuses in recent years.

Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Impact of Mining

The implementation of new laws, as well as tighter enforcement of regulations and the closing of illegal mines, could have a large positive impact. Making mines more environmentally friendly and sustainable even while they are in active use may also provide a positive impact.

Some examples of the negative environmental impacts of mining include climate change, deforestation/habitat destruction, pollution, soil erosion, human-wildlife conflict, and the loss of biodiversity.


One potential impact is the discharge of metal mining waste into adjacent and downstream water bodies, which are detrimental in a wide number of ways, including water and food contamination, soil erosion, and deforestation.


a.) Biodiversity loss

b.) Bioamplification of toxins

c.) Deforestation

d.) Flooding

e.) All of the above

Answer: e.) All of the above


The destruction of natural habitat, the potential creation of sinkholes and a loss of biodiversity.

Final Environmental Impact of Mining Quiz

Question

There are many negative environmental impacts that can result from mining activities. Some examples include...

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Answer

Deforestation/habitat destruction

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Question

True or False: Local indigenous human populations are also often negatively affected by tin mines.

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Answer

True

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Question

Through a process called _______, hazardous chemicals build up in the tissue of organisms and affect other organisms further up the food chain that use the fish as a food resource (including humans). 

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Answer

Biomagnification

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Question

It is estimated that, worldwide, mines discharge ________ of hazardous materials into water bodies annually.

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Answer

180 million tons

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Question

The Grasberg Mine alone discharges around ________ of waste, a staggering ____ of the worldwide total, annually into the Aikwa River and the Arafura Sea.

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Answer

80 million tons; 44.4%

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Question

Illegal sand mining operations around a wildlife sSanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh are believed to have decimated the local population of _________.

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Answer

Indian gharials (Gavialis gangeticus)

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Question

Around ___ of the world’s population currently relies on coal power.

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Answer

40%

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The burning of coal currently makes up around ___ of the carbon dioxide emissions worldwide annually.

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Answer

40%

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Question

Indonesia is the world’s leading supplier of tin and ___ of that tin is mined on the Bangka and Belitung islands.

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Answer

90%

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Question

What unexpected impact is tin mining believed to have had in the Bangka-Belitung Islands?

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Answer

Saltwater crocodiles began attacking and preying upon people with greater frequency.

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Question

___ of the bat species present in the United States use abandoned mines as habitat for a wide variety of purposes.

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Answer

64%

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What is one positive impact of mining on the environment?

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Answer

It provides habitat for some wildlife species, particularly bats.

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Question

This mine, which is owned by the world's largest mining company, discharged 90 million tons of waste annually into downstream river systems for a period of nearly 30 years.

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Answer

Ok Tedi Mine

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Question

Illegal sand mining has become such a problem in parts of India that sand miners are now referred to as the...

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Answer

"Sand mafia"

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Question

True or False: Hazardous chemicals, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury, are contained within mine waste.

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Answer

True

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60%

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