How Does Mining Affect The Environment?
There are really a couple of major effects that mining can have on the environment. One is “internal” and one is “external.” The first has to do with deep mining and the empty spaces left behind when coal and waste material is taken to the surface. Some landowners have experience mine subsidence, in which the surface of their property drops because the mine below has collapsed.
This is generally not a major environmental event, though it can be inconvenient and costly for the property owner and the mining company. There are other, more serious, problems that fall under the environmental-effect banner.
Some studies of mining effects begin with two items – water and “tailings.” The waste material and leftover rock from the mines must be stored somewhere. Much of this material, tons of it, don’t remain underground or in the pits of surface mines. For many years, companies simply piled it up, creating mountains of unusable material that sat in the same place for many years.
Water that seeps into mines (infiltration) must be dealt with as well. This water is often pumped to the surface and must go somewhere. At times, mine water is pumped into an area stream or pond. This can cause environmental problems when the water contains metals, heavy particles or has an unusual pH level (acid or alkaline).
Tailings from the mines contain metals that may kill vegetation or get into the system of plants that could be consumed by animals and humans. The health problems from that point can be serious. Fish may become unfit to eat because of these metals as well. Some states advise residents not to eat fish from fresh-water lakes and streams because of the mercury levels in the water that show up in fish.
Another surface effect on the environment is removal of natural landscape, trees and other vegetation during the construction phase of underground mining. This effect is even more significant in surface mining, which can change the appearance of vast areas, not to mention changing the ecosystem. When trees and water sources are changed, animal populations must migrate or die.
People may be affected as well, especially if lakes and streams are changed. Fishing and recreational opportunities might be eliminated. In contrast, mining sometimes creates standing bodies of water that attract insects, mosquitoes etc. The chemicals left behind in streams and ponds may become a health hazard for human populations as well, especially if the contaminated water mixes with a residential water source.
While it isn’t a true “environmental” effect, the changes in lifestyle and the economy from establishing a mine can be quite negative for the surrounding population. If their hunting, fishing and recreation are changed because the environment is changed, there may be serious social consequences – poverty, crime, etc.
All of these effects are good reasons for mining companies, government officials and others to proceed carefully when a mining operation is being considered. The effects may not be evident immediately, but they can show up years in the future.Category: Environment, Science