Environmental impact of mining

The environmental impact of mining includes erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also affect the health of the local population.[1] Mining companies in some countries are required to follow environmental and rehabilitation codes, ensuring the area mined is returned close to its original state. Some mining methods may have significant environmental and public health effects. Nuss and Eckelman (2014)[2] provide an overview of the life-cycle wide environmental impacts of metals production associated with 62 metals in year 2008.

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 and disturbance of ecosystems and habitats, and in areas of farming it may disturb or destroy productive grazing and croplands. In urbanised environments mining may produce noise pollution, dust pollution and visual pollution.


Water pollution

Mining can have adverse effects on surrounding surface and groundwater if protective measures are not taken. The result can be unnaturally high concentrations of some chemicals, such as arsenic, sulfuric acid, and mercury over a significant area of surface or subsurface.[3] Runoff of mere soil or rock debris -although non-toxic- also devastates the surrounding vegetation. The dumping of the runoff in surface waters or in forests is the worst option here. Submarine tailings disposal is regarded as a better option (if the soil is pumped to a great depth).[4] Mere 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 the debris. There is potential for massive contamination of the area surrounding mines due to the various chemicals used in the mining process as well as the potentially damaging compounds and metals removed from the ground with the ore. Large amounts of water produced from mine drainage, mine cooling, aqueous extraction and other mining processes increases the potential for these chemicals to contaminate ground and surface water. In well-regulated mines, hydrologists and geologists take careful measurements of water and soil to exclude any type of water contamination that could be caused by the mine's operations. The reducing or eliminating of environmental degradation is enforced in modern American mining by federal and state law, by restricting operators to meet standards for protecting surface and ground water from contamination. This is best done through the use of non-toxic extraction processes as bioleaching. If the project site becomes nonetheless polluted, mitigation techniques such as acid mine drainage (AMD) need to be performed.

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.[5]

A 2006 review of environmental impact statements found that "water quality predictions made after considering the effects of mitigations largely underestimated actual impacts to groundwater, seeps, and surface water".[6]

Acid rock drainage

Main article: Acid mine 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 rock drainage.

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.

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.[7] 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.

Effects on biodiversity

The Ok Tedi River is contaminated by tailings from a nearby mine.

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.[8] 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, vegetals and microorganisms. Habitat modification such as pH and temperature modification disturb communities in the area. Endemic species are especially sensitive, since they need very specific environmental conditions. Destruction or slight modification of their habitat puts them at the risk of extinction. Habitats can be damaged when there is not enough terrestrial as well by non-chemicals products, such as large rocks from the mines that are discarded in the surrounding landscape with no concern for impacts on natural habitat.[9]

Concentrations of heavy metals are known to decrease with distance from the mine,[8] and effects on biodiversity 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.[10]

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

Adverse mining effects on biodiversity depend to 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.[11] Remediation takes time,[12] and in most of the cases will not enable the recovery of the diversity present before the mining activity.

Aquatic organisms

The mining industry can impact aquatic biodiversity through different ways. Direct poisoning is the first one,[13][14] and risks are higher when contaminants are mobile in the sediment [13] or bioavailable in the water. Mine drainage can modify water pH,[15] and it is hard to differentiate direct impact on organisms from impacts caused by pH changes. Effects can nonetheless be observed and proved to be caused by pH modifications.[14] Contaminants can also affect aquatic organisms through physical effects:[14] streams with high concentrations of suspended sediment limit light, thus diminishing algae biomass.[16] Metal oxide deposition can limit biomass by coating algae or their substrate, thereby preventing colonization.[14]

Contaminated Osisko lake in Rouyn-Noranda

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.[17]


Algae communities are less diverse in acidic water containing high zinc concentration,[14] and mine drainage stress decrease their primary production. Diatoms community is greatly modified by any chemical change.[18] pH phytoplankton assemblage,[19] and high metal concentration diminishes the abundance of planktonic species.[18] Some diatom species may however grow in high-metal-concentration sediments.[18] In sediments close to the surface, cysts suffer from corrosion and heavy coating.[18] In very polluted conditions, total algae biomass is quite low, and the planktonic diatom community missing.[18] In case of functional complementarity however, it is possible that phytoplankton and zooplankton mass remains stable.


Water insect and crustacean communities are modified around a mine,[20] resulting in a low trophic completeness and community being dominated by predators. However, biodiversity of macroinvertebrates can remain high, if sensitive species are replaced with tolerant ones.[21] When diversity is on the contrary reduced, there is sometimes no effect of stream contamination on abundance or biomass,[21] 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. Fishes are also affected by pH,[22] temperature variations and chemical concentrations.

Terrestrial organisms


Soils' texture and water content can be greatly modified in disturbed sites,[12] leading to plants communities 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 cover is less affected by high contaminant concentration than forbs and shrubs.[12] Mines waste-material rejects or traces due to mining activity can be found in the vicinity of the mine, sometimes pretty far away from the source.[23] Established plants cannot move away from perturbations, and will eventually die if their habitat is contaminated by heavy metals or metalloids at concentration 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 mine surrounding lands to occupy the ecological niche.

Plants can be affected through direct poisoning, for example arsenic soil content reduces bryophyte diversity.[13] Soil acidification through pH diminution by chemical contamination can also lead to a diminished species number.[13] Contaminants can modify or disturb microorganisms, thus modifying nutrient availability, causing a loss of vegetation in the area.[13] Some tree roots avoid the deeper soil layer in order to avoid the contaminated zone, and thus miss anchorage and might be uprooted by the wind when their height and shoot weight increase.[23] In general, root exploration is reduced in contaminated areas compared to non-polluted ones.[12] Even in reclaimed habitats, plant species diversity is lower than in undisturbed areas.[12]

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 consumptions might lead to health problems caused by long-term metal exposure.[8] Cigarettes made from tobacco growing on contaminated sites might as well have adverse effects on human population, as tobacco tends to accumulate cadmium and zinc in its leaves.

Malartic mine - Osisko

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.

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.[11] They are fewer number of ants species in soil containing high copper levels, in the vicinity of a copper mine.[9] If fewer ants are found, chances are great that other organisms leaving in the surrounding landscape are strongly affected as well by this high copper levels, since ants are a good environmental control: they live directly in the soil and are thus pretty sensitive to environmental disruptions.


Because of their size, microorganisms are extremely sensitive to environmental modification,such as modified pH,[13] temperature changes or chemicals concentration. For example, the presence of arsenic and antimony in soils led to a diminution in total soil bacteria.[13] Moreover, as in water, a small change in the soil pH can provoke the remobilization of contaminants,[24] 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 existence of resistance or tolerance genes in some colonies,[25] as long as modifications are not too extreme. Nevertheless, survival in these conditions will imply a big loss of gene diversity, resulting in reduced potential adaptations to subsequent changes. The presence of few developed 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 reduced activity.[13] Twenty years after disturbance, even in rehabilitation area, microbial biomass is still greatly reduced compared to undisturbed habitat.[12] 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. Some fungi possess however contaminant accumulation capacity, soil cleaning capacity by changing the biodisponibility of contaminants,[23] and can protect plants from damages caused by chemicals.[23] Their presence in contaminated sites could prevent loss of biodiversity due to mine-waste contamination,[23] or allow bioremediation, that is, the removal of undesired chemicals from contaminated soils. On the contrary, some microbes can deteriorate the environment: which mean elevated SO4 in the water can also increase microbial production of hydrogen sulfide, a toxin for many aquatic plants and organisms.[23]

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 enormous 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.

There are also many occupational health hazards. Most of the miners suffer from various respiratory and skin diseases. Miners working in different types of mines suffer from asbestosis, silicosis, black lung disease etc.[26]

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

Main article: 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.


House in Gladbeck, Germany, with fissures caused by gravity erosion due to mining.

Salt mining and salt dome collapsing in Assumption Parish, Louisiana caused the Bayou Corne sinkhole in 2012. As of August 2013, the sinkhole continues to expand.

Tailings and spoil


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


  1. Poisoning by mines
  2. Nuss, P.; Eckelman, M.J. (2014). "Life Cycle Assessment of Metals: A Scientific Synthesis". PLoS ONE. 9 (7): e101298. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101298.
  3. Gold mining causing mercury pollution
  4. Solid disposal options
  5. First International Conference on Mining Impacts to Human and Natural Environments (March 15, 2008)
  6. Maest et al 2006. Predicted Versus Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mine Sites: Effect of Inherent Geochemical and Hydrologic Characteristics.
  7. Ottawa County, Oklahoma Hazardous Waste Sites
  8. 1 2 3 Jung, Myung Chae; Thornton, Iain (1996). "Heavy metals contamination of soils and plants in the vicinity of a lead-zinc mine, Korea". Applied Geochemistry. 11: 53–59. doi:10.1016/0883-2927(95)00075-5.
  9. 1 2 Diehl, E; Sanhudo, C. E. D; DIEHL-FLEIG, Ed (2004). "GROUND-DWELLING ANT FAUNA OF SITES WITH HIGH LEVELS OF COPPER". Brazilian Journal of Biology. 61 (1): 33–39.
  10. Tarras-Wahlberga, N.H.; Flachier, A.; Lanec, S.N.; Sangforsd, O. (2001). "Environmental impacts and metal exposure of aquatic ecosystems in rivers contaminated by small scale gold mining: the Puyango River basin, southern Ecuador". The Science of the Total Environment. 278: 239–261. doi:10.1016/s0048-9697(01)00655-6.
  11. 1 2 Pyatt, F. B.; Gilmore, G.; Grattan, J. P.; Hunt, C. O.; McLaren, S. (2000). "An Imperial Legacy? An Exploration of the Environmental Impact of Ancient Metal Mining and Smelting in Southern Jordan". Journal of Archaeological Science. 27: 771–778. doi:10.1006/jasc.1999.0580.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mummey, Daniel L.; Stahl, Peter D.; Buyer, Jeffrey S. (2002). "Soil microbiological properties 20 years after surface mine reclamation: spatial analysis of reclaimed and undisturbed sites". Soil biology and chemistry. 34: 1717–1725. doi:10.1016/s0038-0717(02)00158-x.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Steinhauser, Georg; Adlassnig, Wolfram; Lendl, Thomas; Peroutka, Marianne; Weidinger, Marieluise; Lichtscheidl, Irene K.; Bichler, Max (2009). "Metalloid Contaminated Microhabitats and their Biodiversity at a Former Antimony Mining Site in Schlaining, Austria". Open Environmental Sciences. 3: 26–41. doi:10.2174/1876325100903010026.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Niyogi, Dev K.; William M., Lewis Jr.; McKnight, Diane M. (2002). "Effects of Stress from Mine Drainage on Diversity, Biomass, and Function of Primary Producers in Mountain Streams". Ecosystems (5): 554–567.
  15. Ek, A. S.; Renberg, I. (2001). "Heavy metal pollution and lake acidity changes caused by one thousand years of copper mining at Falun, central Sweden". Journal of paleolimnology. 26 (1): 89–107.
  16. RYAN, PADDY A. (1991). "Environmental effects of sediment on New Zealand streams: a review". New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research. 25: 207–221. doi:10.1080/00288330.1991.9516472.
  17. Kimura, Sakurako; Bryan, Christopher G.; Hallberg, Kevin B.; Johnson, D. Barrie (2011). "Biodiversity and geochemistry of an extremely acidic, low-temperature subterranean environment sustained by chemolithotrophy". Environmental Microbiology. 13 (8): 2092–2104. doi:10.1111/j.1462-2920.2011.02434.x.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 Salonen, Veli-Pekka Salonen; Tuovinen, Nanna; Valpola, Samu (2006). "History of mine drainage impact on Lake Orija¨ rvi algal communities, SW Finland". Journal of Paleolimnology. 35: 289–303. doi:10.1007/s10933-005-0483-z.
  19. Michelutti, Neal; Laing, Tamsin E.; Smol, John P. (2001). "Diatom Assessment of Past Environmental Changes in Lakes Located Near the Noril'sk (Siberia) Smelters". Water, Air, & Soil Pollution. 125 (1): 231–241.
  20. Gerhardt, A.; Janssens de Bisthoven, L.; Soares, A.M.V.M. (2004). "Macroinvertebrate response to acid mine drainage: community metrics and on-line behavioural toxicity bioassay". Environmental pollution. 130: 263–274. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2003.11.016.
  22. Wong, H.K.T; Gauthier, A.; Nriagu, J.O. (1999). "Dispersion and toxicity of metals from abandoned gold mine tailings at Goldenville, Nova Scotia, Canada". Science of The Total Environment. 228 (1): 35–47. doi:10.1016/s0048-9697(99)00021-2.
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 6 del Pilar Ortega-Larrocea, Marıa; Xoconostle-Cazares, Beatriz; Maldonado-Mendoza, Ignacio E.; Carrillo-Gonzalez, Rogelio; Hernandez-Hernandez, Jani; Dıaz Garduno, Margarita; Lopez-Meyer, Melina; Gomez-Flores, Lydia; del Carmen A. Gonzalez-Chavez, Ma. (2010). "Plant and fungal biodiversity from metal mine wastes under remediation at Zimapan, Hidalgo, Mexico". Environmental Pollution. 158: 1922–1931. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2009.10.034.
  24. Rösner, T.; van Schalkwyk, A. (2000). "The environmental impact of gold mine tailings footprints in the Johannesburg region, South Africa". Bulletin of Engineering Geology and the Environment. 59: 137–148. doi:10.1007/s100640000037.
  25. Hoostal, MJ; Bidart-Bouzat, MG; Bouzat, JL (2008). "Local adaptation of microbial communities to heavy metal stress in polluted sediments of Lake Erie". FEMS Microbiology Ecology. 65: 156–168. doi:10.1111/j.1574-6941.2008.00522.x.
  26. Kaushik Anubha, Kaushik, C.P. (2010). Basics of Environment and Ecology. New Delhi: New Age International (p) Limited, Publishers.
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