The Environmental Impact of Mining
Mining is perhaps the oldest human industrial endeavor, going back at least 40,000 years. Broadly defined, mining is the extraction of mineral resources from the surrounding material—everything from the quarrying of stone to drilling for oil and gas. Mining takes many forms, everything from open-pit or “strip” mining to deep vertical or horizontal shafts bored into the ground, as well as underwater excavations and offshore drilling (orbital, asteroid, or deep-space mining remain purely speculative enterprises). Common to nearly all mining is that the amount of waste material extracted vastly exceeds the amount of the desired resource ultimately recovered, and that significant supplies of relatively more abundant resources such as water or wood are ultimately exchanged for a relatively small amount of a much more economically valuable end product. It is these last two factors which constitute the most visible component of mining’s environmental impact, an impact which also includes chemical contamination, landscape alteration, and a significant human component.
The impact of a given mine depends on a number of factors, including the method used, the resource being extracted, the overall size of the mining operation, and the degree of remoteness. Material removed from the mine that is not of any immediate economic value, known as “overburden”, must be stored somewhere out of the way to allow mining of valuable materials to commence. Mine “tailings”, the leavings of the process of separating the valuable resource from the substance that initially contained it, often consists of a toxic slurry which must be kept contained. Shaft mines and other underground techniques such as fracking can lead to underground collapse, forming sinkholes and other seismic anomalies. Underground coal mine fires have rendered large regions uninhabitable, largely due to carbon monoxide. Dust plumes from large-scale mining operations severely increase the atmospheric concentration of fine particulates, and especially when combined with the large diesel generators commonly used in remote areas lead to significant air pollution. All forms of terrestrial mining have a severe impact on local and regional water resources, due both to the alteration of drainage patterns and to the diversion of water to the mining project itself. Water used for mining is generally not safe for release back into the environment, and must be processed so that it does not poison the local ecosystem, whether with chemical leachings from exposed minerals or with industrial fluids. The materials extracted may themselves be hazardous, with oil spills both terrestrially and at sea causing untold damage. And this is to say nothing of the harm suffered by miners and mining towns, with whole populations suffering the effects of substances both inhaled and ingested.
Despite all of the hazards associated with large-scale resource extraction, mining remains an essential component of human civilization. It is the task of the Environmental Committee to examine the ways in which the impact of mining can be mitigated. While many nations have implemented local regulations in an effort to avoid harm to local ecosystems and human populations, these regulations are by no means universal, and are by no means uniformly enforced even where they exist. The committee’s deliberations should take into account not only the impact of active mines and drilling projects, but also the reclamation and restoration of land used for mines which are no longer active, in addition to the containment and cleanup of mining disasters such as runoff and spillage. Management of the resources used in mining, especially water resources, to avoid wastage and make the mining process more environmentally efficient is also essential.