Environmental issues can include erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. In some cases, additional forest logging is done in the vicinity of mines to create space for the storage of the created debris and soil. Contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals can also affect the health of the local population if not properly controlled. Extreme examples of pollution from mining activities include coal fires, which can last for years or even decades, producing massive amounts of environmental damage.
Mining companies in most countries are required to follow stringent environmental and rehabilitation codes in order to minimize environmental impact and avoid impacting human health. These codes and regulations all require the common steps of environmental impact assessment, development of environmental management plans, mine closure planning (which must be done before the start of mining operations), and environmental monitoring during operation and after closure. However, in some areas, particularly in the developing world, government regulations may not be well enforced.
Ore mills generate large amounts of waste, called tailings. For example, 99 tons of waste are generated per ton of copper, with even higher ratios in gold mining. These tailings can be toxic. Tailings, which are usually produced as a slurry, are most commonly dumped into ponds made from naturally existing valleys. These ponds are secured by impoundments (dams or embankment dams). In 2000 it was estimated that 3,500 tailings impoundments existed, and that every year, 2 to 5 major failures and 35 minor failures occurred; for example, in the Marcopper mining disaster at least 2 million tons of tailings were released into a local river. Subaqueous tailings disposal is another option. The mining industry has argued that submarine tailings disposal (STD), which disposes of tailings in the sea, is ideal because it avoids the risks of tailings ponds; although the practice is illegal in the United States and Canada, it is used in the developing world.
The waste is classified as either sterile or mineralised, with acid generating potential, and the movement and storage of this material forms a major part of the mine planning process. When the mineralised package is determined by an economic cut-off, the near-grade mineralised waste is usually dumped separately with view to later treatment should market conditions change and it becomes economically viable. Civil engineering design parameters are used in the design of the waste dumps, and special conditions apply to high-rainfall areas and to seismically active areas. Waste dump designs must meet all regulatory requirements of the country in whose jurisdiction the mine is located. It is also common practice to rehabilitate dumps to an internationally acceptable standard, which in some cases means that higher standards than the local regulatory standard are applied.
After mining finishes, the mine area must undergo rehabilitation. Waste dumps are contoured to flatten them out, to further stabilise them. If the ore contains sulfides it is usually covered with a layer of clay to prevent access of rain and oxygen from the air, which can oxidise the sulfides to produce sulfuric acid, a phenomenon known as acid mine drainage. This is then generally covered with soil, and vegetation is planted to help consolidate the material. Eventually this layer will erode, but it is generally hoped that the rate of leaching or acid will be slowed by the cover such that the environment can handle the load of acid and associated heavy metals. There are no long term studies on the success of these covers due to the relatively short time in which large scale open pit mining has existed. It may take hundreds to thousands of years for some waste dumps to become “acid neutral” and stop leaching to the environment. The dumps are usually fenced off to prevent livestock denuding them of vegetation. The open pit is then surrounded with afence, to prevent access, and it generally eventually fills up with ground water. In arid areas it may not fill due to deep groundwater levels.
Metal Reserves and Recycling
During the twentieth century, the variety of metals used in society grew rapidly. Today, the development of major nations such as China and India and advances in technologies are fueling an ever greater demand. The result is that metal mining activities are expanding and more and more of the world’s metal stocks are above ground in use rather than below ground as unused reserves. An example is the in-use stock of copper. Between 1932 and 1999, copper in use in the USA rose from 73 kilograms (161 lb) to 238 kilograms (525 lb) per person.
95% of the energy used to make aluminum from bauxite ore is saved by using recycled material. However, levels of metals recycling are generally low. In 2010, the International Resource Panel, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published reports on metal stocks that exist within society and their recycling rates.
The report’s authors observed that the metal stocks in society can serve as huge mines above ground. However, they warned that the recycling rates of some rare metals used in applications such as mobile phones, battery packs for hybrid cars, and fuel cells are so low that unless future end-of-life recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical metals will become unavailable for use in modern technology.