The mining industry – part of chapter 2 of research study

The mining industry, a large subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry, must be considered alongside the latter industry, one already examined for its extensive adverse ecological impacts. Strip mining for coal, drilling for oil, fracking for natural gas, for examples, have been discussed above for their direct impact on ecology, as well as the impacts that the various ‘accompaniments’ to these kinds of mining projects have on ecosystems such as the building of roads, the production of waste materials, and the clearing of forests for access to resources (and the domino effects such activities have further down the line, such as the loss of biodiversity and topsoil). All mining activities, furthermore, are massive consumers of fossil-fuel energy, and therefore are responsible for the emission of considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Additionally, the infrastructure for the building and running of mines is extensive, and inputs from a wide industrial web can be traced, all of which come at the expense of the environment; a plethora of petrochemicals is also used, some of which have already been shown to have considerable adverse affects on people and the environment, and heavy pollution is strongly associated with the industry in the context of the fossil-fuel industry already explored.

According to the Energy Information Administration in the USA1, the “second-largest user of energy in the world industrial sector is the iron and steel industry, which accounted for 15 percent of industrial sector delivered energy consumption in 2010”; note that the EIA says of the industrial sector in general that it “uses more delivered energy than any other end-use sector, consuming about one-half of the world’s total delivered energy”. A different source2 adds some more information about energy use in the mining industry:

South Africa’s Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) estimates that the mining industry uses 6% of all the energy consumed in South Africa. In Brazil, the largest single energy consumer is mining giant Vale, which accounts for around 4% of all energy used in the country. In the US State of Colorado, mining has been estimated to account for 18% of total industrial sector energy use, while overall in the US it is calculated that the mining industry uses 3% of industry energy.

Eia.org3 adds that “Chile, added to the OECD in 2010, is the world’s largest producer of copper, and the mining industry accounts for 16 percent of total fuel consumption in the country’s industrial sector.” These percentages of total industrial energy-use alone already paint the mining industry in a problematic light due to the impact that fossil-fuel technologies have on the environment (issues explored already in chapter 1, notably in section 1.2.1, ‘the fossil-fuel industry’), for examples, the associated carbon emissions and their contributions to climate change, deforestation and road-building and pollution that comes with accessing an area for its fossil fuels, loss of topsoil, etc.

Other than the basic fact that mining uses greenhouse-gas producing fossil-fuel energy, mining processes generally pollute the environment considerably. As pointed out at a Canadian government website, Environment Canada4, in the context of the mining industry in general, “Waste rock and mine tailings can result in releases to water and soil. Acidic drainage and the leaching of metals from the mine workings and mine wastes may occur at metal mines. Acidic drainage can cause significant impacts on water quality and aquatic ecosystems. Chemicals that are used to process metal-bearing ores can also be found in mine waste water.” Water and soil are categories in themselves in the first part of chapter 1; the dire ecological implications of their pollution are discussed in the relevant sections.

When it comes to ore mining, in addition to the issues of pollution and greenhouse gas production, some of the dangerous products of the petrochemical industry are used; as stated at pollutionissues.com5,

“ores must be treated, generally with chemicals or heat to produce the metal of interest. Most bauxite ore, for example, is converted to aluminum oxide, which is used to make aluminum metal via heat and additives. Fuel minerals, such as coal and uranium, must also be processed using chemicals and other treatments to produce the quality of fuel desired.”

Various accompanying ecological issues of the petrochemical industry (many discussed in the relevant section above) must therefore be factored in as environmentally-problematic aspects of the mining industry. The same source elaborates on some of the pollution details:

“After the ore is removed from the ground, it is crushed so that the valuable mineral in the ore can be separated from the waste material and concentrated by flotation (a process that separates finely ground minerals from one another by causing some to float in a froth and others to sink), gravity, magnetism, or other methods, usually at the mine site, to prepare it for further stages of processing. The production of large amounts of waste material (often very acidic) and particulate emission have led to major environmental and health concerns with ore extraction and concentration. Additional processing separates the desired metal from the mineral concentrate.”

Still on the topic of pollution associated with mining, acid mine drainage needs to be mentioned for its enduring environmentally-polluting character. As detailed at earthisland.org6,

“The primary cause of… lasting pollution is acid mine drainage. Mining exposes sulfide-bearing ore that generates sulfuric acid and mixes with water. This outflow of acidic water, otherwise known as acid mine drainage, contaminates drinking water aquifers, lakes, and streams, agricultural lands, and prime fish and wildlife habitat. Because acid mine drainage can’t be stopped, once started it must be treated until the acid generating material runs out. As acknowledged in government mining permits, this can take hundreds or thousands of years. …“No hard rock open pit mines exist today that can demonstrate that acid mine drainage can be stopped once it occurs on a large scale,” says Dr. Glenn Miller, professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada.”

An Earthworks report, released in 2013, called ‘Polluting the Future’7, has the following eye-opening information to add about some of the ecological impacts of mining:

In the midst of declining fresh water supplies, an increasing number of hard rock mining companies are generating water pollution that will last for hundreds or thousands of years and new projects are on the horizon. Perpetual management of mines is a rapidly escalating national dilemma. Our research shows, for the first time, the staggering amount of our nation’s water supplies that are perpetually polluted by mining. A lengthy review of government documents reveals that an estimated 17 to 27 billion gallons of polluted water will be generated by forty mines each year, every year, in perpetuity. … Perpetual pollution from metal mines has contaminated drinking water aquifers, created long-standing public health risks, and destroyed fish and wildlife and their habitat.

Pollutionissues.org8 adds that

“Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a potentially severe pollution hazard that can contaminate surrounding soil, groundwater, and surface water. The formation of acid mine drainage is a function of the geology, hydrology, and mining technology employed at a mine site. The primary sources for acid generation are sulfide minerals, such as pyrite (iron sulfide), which decompose in air and water. Many of these sulfide minerals originate from waste rock removed from the mine or from tailings. If water infiltrates pyrite-laden rock in the presence of air, it can become acidified, often at a pH level of two or three. This increased acidity in the water can destroy living organisms, and corrode culverts, piers, boat hulls, pumps, and other metal equipment in contact with the acid waters and render the water unacceptable for drinking or recreational use.”

The Blacksmiths Institute9 raises the issue of mercury pollution from ‘artisanal’ gold mines, which is to say ‘smaller-scale’ gold mines: “According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), as much as 95 percent of all mercury used in artisanal gold mining is released into the environment, constituting a danger on all fronts – economic, environmental and human health”. This is to say 1000 tons of mercury annually from the artisanal gold mining industry, which is an estimated 30% of total anthropogenic mercury release into the environment annually. The same source explicitly draws attention to the dangers for human beings of such pollution, but in doing so also shows how environments are impacted upon: “Once mercury is released into waterways, it enters the food chain through the digestion of bacteria and becomes the far more toxic – methylmercury. Methylmercury bioaccumulates in the food chain and is ingested by residents of downstream communities as they eat contaminated fish”.

National Geographic10 paints a more severe picture of mercy pollution in gold mining: it details information about “tons of mercury released during the process of separating gold from rock. In small-scale gold mining, UNIDO estimates, two to five grams of mercury are released into the environment for every gram of gold recovered – a staggering statistic, given that mercury poisoning can cause severe damage to the nervous system and all major organs. According to Peru­vian environmentalists, the mercury released at La Rinconada and the nearby mining town of Ananea is contaminating rivers and lakes down to the coast of Lake Titicaca, more than a hundred miles away.”

Finally, in summary, three ecological ‘categories’, namely air, land, and water, affected by the mining industry, are explained at pollutionissues.org11:

“Air. All methods of mining affect air quality. Particulate matter is released in surface mining when overburden is stripped from the site and stored or returned to the pit. When the soil is removed, vegetation is also removed, exposing the soil to the weather, causing particulates to become airborne through wind erosion and road traffic. Particulate matter can be composed of such noxious materials as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. In general, particulates affect human health adversely by contributing to illnesses relating to the respiratory tract, such as emphysema, but they also can be ingested or absorbed into the skin.”

“Land. Mining can cause physical disturbances to the landscape, creating eyesores such as waste-rock piles and open pits. Such disturbances may contribute to the decline of wildlife and plant species in an area. In addition, it is possible that many of the premining surface features cannot be replaced after mining ceases. Mine subsidence (ground movements of the earth’s surface due to the collapse of overlying strata into voids created by underground mining) can cause damage to buildings and roads. Between 1980 and 1985, nearly five hundred subsidence collapse features attributed to abandoned underground metal mines were identified in the vicinity of Galena, Kansas, where the mining of lead ores took place from 1850 to 1970. The entire area was reclaimed in 1994 and 1995.”

“Water. Water-pollution problems caused by mining include acid mine drainage, metal contamination, and increased sediment levels in streams. Sources can include active or abandoned surface and underground mines, processing plants, waste-disposal areas, haulage roads, or tailings ponds. Sediments, typically from increased soil erosion, cause siltation or the smothering of streambeds. This siltation affects fisheries, swimming, domestic water supply, irrigation, and other uses of streams.”