Mining 101

Metal mining provides us with materials essential for modern life.

But mining also devastates communities, clean water and the environment.

Negative impacts of today’s metal mines 

Massive landslide at the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah. Photo: Deseret News.

Destroyed landscapes

An open pit mine is the most common type of industrial metal mine.

Open pit mines create huge, permanent scars on the landscape. Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine southwest of Salt Lake City turned a mountain into a hole almost a kilometer deep and 4 kilometers wide.

Because the ore extracted from today’s mines is extremely low grade, they generate huge amounts of waste. The average gold ring generates more than 20 tons of waste.

Polluted landscapes

Even when everything goes right, mine waste (and therefore a mine waste disposal site) often contains toxic substances, like arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, that are harmful to public health and fish and wildlife when released into the environment.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is the nation’s #1 toxic polluter.

Earthwork’s research of 14 operating U.S. copper mines (accounting for 89% of U.S. copper production) found that 100% had pipeline spills, 92% failed to control mine wastewater and 28% had tailings impoundment failures – polluting drinking water, destroying fish and wildlife habitat, harming agricultural land and threatening public health.

Mine tailings impoundment failures

Mine waste disposal sometimes goes catastrophically wrong.

Mine waste comes in two basic types:

  1. Waste rock – the stuff that is removed to get at the ore. Waste rock often contains trace amount of metals, some toxic, which can leach into the environment.
  2. Mine tailings – the leavings after ore is processed to remove the target metal. In tailings toxics can both more concentrated and more “available” to the environment so usually present more of a danger.

Tailings are often impounded behind enormous earthen dams — permanent landscape features after the mine closes.

Tailings impoundments can fail catastrophically, releasing vast amounts of mine waste downstream (e.g., the 2015 Mount Polley tailings dam failure in British Columbia and the 2016 Samarco tailings dam failure in Brazil). Recently published research indicates that the rate of severe tailings dam failure is increasing globally because of, not in spite of, modern mining technology.

Forever polluted water

Mining creates acid mine drainage by exposing sulfides in rock which then reacts with water and air to form sulfuric acid. Once the process starts it’s impossible to stop until the acid generating material is depleted. The acid drainage can only be treated. Some Roman mines in Spain still drain acid.

The EPA estimates 40% of the headwaters of western watersheds have been polluted by mining, and acid mine drainage is a main reason why.

In the United States alone, government and company data document 40 existing mines that will contaminate 17-27 billion gallons of water every year, forever.

Globally, mining also dumps mining waste directly into lakes, river and oceans: over 180 million tonnes each year.

Communities destroyed

Approximately half of gold mined from 1995 to 2015 comes from the traditional territories of indigenous people.

Massive protests in Bucharest, Romania, opposing the proposed Rosia Montana open pit gold mine.
Massive protest in Bucharest, Romania, opposing the development of the
Rosia Montana open pit gold mine.

Because few countries have codified the principles of free prior and informed consent (FPIC), much of this gold was mined coercively. For example, mining operations sometimes forcibly resettle entire communities.

Mining has also been tied to violence and human rights abuses, such as funding the decades old conflict in the Congo and human rights abuses surrounding the Conga mine in Peru.

Towards better mining

Although mining is inherently destructive, it can be less environmentally damaging and more respectful of communities.

1872 Mining Law reform

In the United States metal mining on hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands is governed by a 19th century law that:

  • contains no environmental provisions,
  • has given away more than $300 billion in publicly owned minerals, and
  • forces land managers to permit mines even when the public’s land would be better used for another purpose.

More than 140 years later, we know how to fix the problem.

Regulatory reform

Even without acts of Congress, federal rules can be improved to better protect communities and the environment:

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) 108bAlthough the EPA has the statutory authority under Section 108b of CERCLA to require mining companies to provide financial assurance to demonstrate that adequate funds are in place to complete mine cleanup, more than 30 years after the statute was enacted the EPA has failed to develop rules to implement its authority.
  • Clean Water Act ‘fill material’ definitionA 2002 revision of regulations expanded the definition of “fill material” under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to include mine waste. Section 404 was intended to regulate the placement of rock, soil, clay, sand and other materials normally used in construction related activities, not mining waste.

Community initiatives

Earthworks staff and Bristol Bay native leaders at London Tiffany store, thanking them for their support.
Earthworks staff and Bristol Bay native leaders at London Tiffany store,
thanking them for their support.

Some places are too precious to mine, like Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. Fighting to protect the world’s largest wild salmon fishery from the Pebble mine proposal raises the profile of mining impacts everywhere.

Organized community opposition can be one of the greatest tools in protecting communities and the environment from mining’s negative impacts.

No Dirty Gold campaign

The majority of gold demand comes from jewelry. But no one wants to say “I love you” with a necklace made from gold mined by child labor. So jewelry retailers (and other gold consumers like electronics) are in a unique position to pressure the mining industry to improve its behavior.

The No Dirty Gold campaign is about convincing these retailers, and consumers, to exercise their market power to demand more responsibly sourced gold.

Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance

IRMA is an effort to create voluntary, independently certified, multistakeholder mining standards that would raise the social and environmental standards of mine sites around the world.

Akin to FSC–certified lumber, IRMA could provide manufacturers of products using metals the certainty that their products are not tainted with human rights violations and minimize their environmental footprint.