Environmental impact of mining

Environmental impacts of mining can occur at local, regional, and global scales through direct and indirect mining practices. Impacts can result in erosion, sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, or the contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water by the chemicals emitted from mining processes. These processes also have an impact on the atmosphere from the emissions of carbon which have effect on the quality of human health and biodiversity.[1] Some mining methods may have such significant environmental and public health effects that mining companies in some countries are required to follow strict environmental and rehabilitation codes to ensure that the mined area returns to its original state.


Erosion of exposed hillsides, mine dumps, tailings dams and resultant siltation of drainages, creeks and rivers can significantly impact the surrounding areas, a prime example being the giant Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea. In wilderness areas mining may cause destruction of ecosystems and habitats, and in areas of farming it may disturb or destroy productive grazing and croplands. In urbanized environments mining may produce noise pollution, dust pollution and visual pollution.


A sinkhole at or near a mine site is typically caused from the failure of a mine roof from the extraction of resources, weak overburden or geological discontinuities.[2] The overburden at the mine site can develop cavities in the subsoil or rock, which can infill with sand and soil from the overlying strata. These cavities in the overburden have the potential to eventually cave in, forming a sinkhole at the surface. The sudden failure of earth creates a large depression at the surface without warning, this can be seriously hazardous to life and property.[3] Sinkholes at a mine site can be mitigated with the proper design of infrastructure such as mining supports and better construction of walls to create a barrier around an area prone to sinkholes. Back-filling and grouting can be done to stabilize abandoned underground workings.

Water pollution

Mining can have harmful effects on surrounding surface and groundwater. If proper precautions are not taken, unnaturally high concentrations of chemicals, such as arsenic, sulfuric acid, and mercury over a significant area of surface or subsurface water.[4] With large amounts of water used for mine drainage, mine cooling, aqueous extraction and other mining processes, increases the potential for these chemicals to contaminate ground and surface water. As mining produces copious amounts of waste water, disposal methods are limited due to contaminates within the waste water. Runoff containing these chemicals can lead to the devastation of the surrounding vegetation. The dumping of the runoff in surface waters or in a lot of forests is the worst option. Therefore, submarine tailings disposal are regarded as a better option (if the waste is pumped to great depth).[5] Land storage and refilling of the mine after it has been depleted is even better, if no forests need to be cleared for the storage of debris. The contamination of watersheds resulting from the leakage of chemicals also has an effect on the health of the local population.

In well-regulated mines, hydrologists and geologists take careful measurements of water to take precaution to exclude any type of water contamination that could be caused by the mine's operations. The minimization of environmental degradation is enforced in American mining practices by federal and state law, by restricting operators to meet standards for the protection of surface and groundwater from contamination.[6] This is best done through the use of non-toxic extraction processes as bioleaching.[7]

Acid rock drainage

Sub-surface mining often progresses below the water table, so water must be constantly pumped out of the mine in order to prevent flooding. When a mine is abandoned, the pumping ceases, and water floods the mine. This introduction of water is the initial step in most acid rock drainage situations.

Acid rock drainage occurs naturally within some environments as part of the rock weathering process but is exacerbated by large-scale earth disturbances characteristic of mining and other large construction activities, usually within rocks containing an abundance of sulfide minerals. Areas where the earth has been disturbed (e.g. construction sites, subdivisions, and transportation corridors) may create acid rock drainage. In many localities, the liquid that drains from coal stocks, coal handling facilities, coal washeries, and coal waste tips can be highly acidic, and in such cases it is treated as acid mine drainage (AMD). The same type of chemical reactions and processes may occur through the disturbance of acid sulfate soils formed under coastal or estuarine conditions after the last major sea level rise, and constitutes a similar environmental hazard.

The five principal technologies used to monitor and control water flow at mine sites are diversion systems, containment ponds, groundwater pumping systems, subsurface drainage systems, and subsurface barriers. In the case of AMD, contaminated water is generally pumped to a treatment facility that neutralizes the contaminants.[8] A 2006 review of environmental impact statements found that "water quality predictions made after considering the effects of mitigation largely underestimated actual impacts to groundwater, seeps, and surface water".[9]

Heavy metals

Dissolution and transport of metals and heavy metals by run-off and ground water is another example of environmental problems with mining, such as the Britannia Mine, a former copper mine near Vancouver, British Columbia. Tar Creek, an abandoned mining area in Picher, Oklahoma that is now an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, also suffers from heavy metal contamination. Water in the mine containing dissolved heavy metals such as lead and cadmium leaked into local groundwater, contaminating it.[10] Long-term storage of tailings and dust can lead to additional problems, as they can be easily blown off site by wind, as occurred at Skouriotissa, an abandoned copper mine in Cyprus.

Effect on biodiversity

The implantation of a mine is a major habitat modification, and smaller perturbations occur on a larger scale than exploitation site, mine-waste residuals contamination of the environment for example. Adverse effects can be observed long after the end of the mine activity.[11] Destruction or drastic modification of the original site and anthropogenic substances release can have major impact on biodiversity in the area. Destruction of the habitat is the main component of biodiversity losses, but direct poisoning caused by mine-extracted material, and indirect poisoning through food and water, can also affect animals, vegetation and microorganisms. Habitat modification such as pH and temperature modification disturb communities in the surrounding area. Endemic species are especially sensitive, since they require very specific environmental conditions. Destruction or slight modification of their habitat put them at the risk of extinction. Habitats can be damaged when there is not enough terrestrial product as well as by non-chemical products, such as large rocks from the mines that are discarded in the surrounding landscape with no concern for impacts on natural habitat.[12]

Concentrations of heavy metals are known to decrease with distance from the mine,[11] and effects on biodiversity tend to follow the same pattern. Impacts can vary greatly depending on mobility and bioavailability of the contaminant: less-mobile molecules will stay inert in the environment while highly mobile molecules will easily move into another compartment or be taken up by organisms. For example, speciation of metals in sediments could modify their bioavailability, and thus their toxicity for aquatic organisms.[13]

Biomagnification plays an important role in polluted habitats: mining impacts on biodiversity, assuming that concentration levels are not high enough to directly kill exposed organisms, should be greater to the species on top of the food chain because of this phenomenon.

Adverse mining effects on biodiversity depend a great extent on the nature of the contaminant, the level of concentration at which it can be found in the environment, and the nature of the ecosystem itself. Some species are quite resistant to anthropogenic disturbances, while some others will completely disappear from the contaminated zone. Time alone does not seem to allow the habitat to recover completely from the contamination.[14] Remediation practices take time,[15] and in most cases will not enable the recovery of the original diversity present before the mining activity took place.

Aquatic organisms

The mining industry can impact aquatic biodiversity through different ways. One way can be direct poisoning;[16][17] a higher risk for this occurs when contaminants are mobile in the sediment[16] or bioavailable in the water. Mine drainage can modify water pH,[18] making it hard to differentiate direct impact on organisms from impacts caused by pH changes. Effects can nonetheless be observed and proven to be caused by pH modifications.[17] Contaminants can also affect aquatic organisms through physical effects:[17] streams with high concentrations of suspended sediment limit light, thus diminishing algae biomass.[19] Metal oxide deposition can limit biomass by coating algae or their substrate, thereby preventing colonization.[17]

Factors that impact communities in acid mine drainage sites vary temporarily and seasonally: temperature, rainfall, pH, salinisation and metal quantity all display variations on the long term, and can heavily affect communities. Changes in pH or temperature can affect metal solubility, and thereby the bioavailable quantity that directly impact organisms. Moreover, contamination persists over time: ninety years after a pyrite mine closure, water pH was still very low and microorganisms populations consisted mainly of acidophil bacteria.[20]


Algae communities are less diverse in acidic water containing high zinc concentration,[17] and mine drainage stress decrease their primary production. Diatoms' community is greatly modified by any chemical change,[21] pH phytoplankton assemblage,[22] and high metal concentration diminishes the abundance of planktonic species.[21] Some diatom species may grow in high-metal-concentration sediments.[21] In sediments close to the surface, cysts suffer from corrosion and heavy coating.[21] In very polluted conditions, total algae biomass is quite low, and the planktonic diatom community is missing.[21] In case of functional complementary, however, it is possible that the phytoplankton and zooplankton mass remains stable.


Water insect and crustacean communities are modified around a mine,[23] resulting in a low trophic completeness and their community being dominated by predators. However, biodiversity of macroinvertebrates can remain high, if sensitive species are replaced with tolerant ones.[24] When diversity within the area is reduced, there is sometimes no effect of stream contamination on abundance or biomass,[24] suggesting that tolerant species fulfilling the same function take the place of sensible species in polluted sites. pH diminution in addition to elevated metal concentration can also have adverse effects on macroinvertebrates' behaviour, showing that direct toxicity is not the only issue. Fish can also be affected by pH,[25] temperature variations, and chemical concentrations. no

Terrestrial organisms


Soil texture and water content can be greatly modified in disturbed sites,[15] leading to plants community changes in the area. Most of the plants have a low concentration tolerance for metals in the soil, but sensitivity differs among species. Grass diversity and total coverage is less affected by high contaminant concentration than forbs and shrubs.[15] Mine waste-materials rejects or traces due to mining activity can be found in the vicinity of the mine, sometimes far away from the source.[26] Established plants cannot move away from perturbations, and will eventually die if their habitat is contaminated by heavy metals or metalloids at a concentration that is too elevated for their physiology. Some species are more resistant and will survive these levels, and some non-native species that can tolerate these concentrations in the soil, will migrate in the surrounding lands of the mine to occupy the ecological niche.

Plants can be affected through direct poisoning, for example arsenic soil content reduces bryophyte diversity.[16] Soil acidification through pH diminution by chemical contamination can also lead to a diminished species number.[16] Contaminants can modify or disturb microorganisms, thus modifying nutrient availability, causing a loss of vegetation in the area.[16] Some tree roots divert away from deeper soil layers in order to avoid the contaminated zone, therefore lacking anchorage within the deep soil layers, resulting in the potential uprooting by the wind when their height and shoot weight increase.[26] In general, root exploration is reduced in contaminated areas compared to non-polluted ones.[15] Plant species diversity will remain lower in reclaimed habitats than in undisturbed areas.[15]

Cultivated crops might be a problem near mines. Most crops can grow on weakly contaminated sites, but yield is generally lower than it would have been in regular growing conditions. Plants also tend to accumulate heavy metals in their aerian organs, possibly leading to human intake through fruits and vegetables. Regular consumption of contaminated crops might lead to health problems caused by long-term metal exposure.[11] Cigarettes made from tobacco growing on contaminated sites might also possibly have adverse effects on human population, as tobacco tends to accumulate cadmium and zinc in its leaves.


Habitat destruction is one of the main issues of mining activity. Huge areas of natural habitat are destroyed during mine construction and exploitation, forcing animals to leave the site.[27]

Animals can be poisoned directly by mine products and residuals. Bioaccumulation in the plants or the smaller organisms they eat can also lead to poisoning: horses, goats and sheep are exposed in certain areas to potentially toxic concentration of copper and lead in grass.[14] There are fewer ant species in soil containing high copper levels, in the vicinity of a copper mine.[12] If fewer ants are found, chances are higher that other organisms living in the surrounding landscape are strongly affected by the high copper levels as well. Ants have good judgement whether an area is habitual as they live directly in the soil and are thus sensitive to environmental disruptions.


Microorganisms are extremely sensitive to environmental modification, such as modified pH,[16] temperature changes or chemical concentrations do to their size. For example, the presence of arsenic and antimony in soils have led to diminution in total soil bacteria.[16] Much like waters sensitivity, a small change in the soil pH can provoke the remobilization of contaminants,[28] in addition to the direct impact on pH-sensitive organisms.

Microorganisms have a wide variety of genes among their total population, so there is a greater chance of survival of the species due to the resistance or tolerance genes in that some colonies possess,[29] as long as modifications are not too extreme. Nevertheless, survival in these conditions will imply a big loss of gene diversity, resulting in a reduced potential for adaptations to subsequent changes. Undeveloped soil in heavy metal contaminated areas could be a sign of reduced activity by soils microfauna and microflora, indicating a reduced number of individuals or diminished activity.[16] Twenty years after disturbance, even in rehabilitation area, microbial biomass is still greatly reduced compared to undisturbed habitat.[15]

Arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi are especially sensitive to the presence of chemicals, and the soil is sometimes so disturbed that they are no longer able to associate with root plants. However, some fungi possess contaminant accumulation capacity and soil cleaning ability by changing the biodisponibility of pollutants,[26] this can protect plants from potential damages that could be caused by chemicals.[26] Their presence in contaminated sites could prevent loss of biodiversity due to mine-waste contamination,[26] or allow for bioremediation, the removal of undesired chemicals from contaminated soils. On the contrary, some microbes can deteriorate the environment: which can lead to elevated SO4 in the water and can also increase microbial production of hydrogen sulfide, a toxin for many aquatic plants and organisms.[26]



Mining processes produce an excess of waste materials known as tailings. The materials that are left over after are a result of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction of ore. These large amounts of waste are a mixture of water, sand, clay, and residual bitumen. Tailings are commonly stored in tailings ponds made from naturally existing valleys or large engineered dams and dyke systems.[30] Tailings ponds can remain part of an active mine operation for 30-40 years. This allows for tailings deposits to settle, or for storage and water recycling.[30]

Tailings have great potential to damage the environment by releasing toxic metals by acid mine drainage or by damaging aquatic wildlife;[31] these both require constant monitoring and treatment of water passing through the dam. However, the greatest danger of tailings ponds is dam failure. Tailings ponds are typically formed by locally derived fills (soil, coarse waste, or overburden from mining operations and tailings) and the dam walls are often built up on to sustain greater amounts of tailings.[32] The lack of regulation for design criteria of the tailings ponds are what put the environment at risk for flooding from the tailings ponds.

Spoil tip

A spoil tip is a pile of accumulated overburden that was removed from a mine site during the extraction of coal or ore. These waste materials are composed of ordinary soil and rocks, with the potential to be contaminated with chemical waster. Spoil is much different from tailings, as it is processed material that remains after the valuable components have been extracted from ore.[33] Spoil tip combustion can happen fairly commonly as, older spoil tips tend to be loose and tip over the edge of a pile. As spoil is mainly composed of carbonaceous material that is highly combustible, it can be accidentally ignited by the lighting fire or the tipping of hot ashes.[34] Spoil tips can often catch fire and be left burning underground or within the spoil piles for many years.

Effects of mine pollution on humans

Humans are also affected by mining. There are many diseases that can come from the pollutants that are released into the air and water during the mining process. For example, during smelting operations large quantities of air pollutants, such as the suspended particulate matter, SOx, arsenic particles and cadmium, are emitted. Metals are usually emitted into the air as particulates as well.

There are also many occupational health hazards that miners face. Most of miners suffer from various respiratory and skin diseases such as asbestosis, silicosis, or black lung disease.

Coal mining


With open cast mining the overburden, which may be covered in forest, must be removed before the mining can commence. Although the deforestation due to mining may be small compared to the total amount it may lead to species extinction if there is a high level of local endemism.

Oil shale

Mountaintop removal mining

Sand mining

Sand mining and gravel mining creates large pits and fissures in the earth's surface. At times, mining can extend so deeply that it affects ground water, springs, underground wells, and the water table.


To ensure completion of reclamation, or restoring mine land for future use, many governments and regulatory authorities around the world require that mining companies post a bond to be held in escrow until productivity of reclaimed land has been convincingly demonstrated, although if cleanup procedures are more expensive than the size of the bond, the bond may simply be abandoned. Since 1978 the mining industry has reclaimed more than 2 million acres (8,000 km²) of land in the United States alone. This reclaimed land has renewed vegetation and wildlife in previous mining lands and can even be used for farming and ranching.

Specific sites

Film and literature

See also


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  3. Singh, Kalendra B.; Dhar, Bharat B. (December 1997). "Sinkhole subsidence due to mining". Geotechnical and Geological Engineering. 15 (4): 327–341. doi:10.1007/BF00880712.
  4. "January 2009". ngm.nationalgeographic.com.
  5. "January 2009". ngm.nationalgeographic.com.
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  10. "Ottawa County, Oklahoma Hazardous Waste Sites". Archived from the original on 2008-02-20. Retrieved 2009-07-26.
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  33. "Spoil tip".
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