Environmental issues with mining | a caricature of them all

Environmental issues with mining are noisy, cantankerous affairs that are not easily resolved. They come about because economic value goes up against environmental values.

Even the most responsibly run mine is going to be messy.

The process of digging up minerals and separating what is needed from useless rock creates holes in or under the ground, often requires a lot of water and leaves an engineering infrastructure footprint on the landscape  .

Digging things up causes dust, generates residues, and debris [spoil] that we don’t want and sometimes contains contaminants that endanger wildlife or even human health.

Not much life persists in tailings dam.

Over time regulation through approvals and compliance have been tightened to make mining companies more accountable. It is harder to make a mess of the environment than it was. Many of the worst practices of the past have gone but there are dirty mines still.

It is also very hard to clean up a mining mess.

Anyone who has renovated a kitchen is exactly what I mean. It takes weeks to get all the grout dust off the tiles — imagine cleaning up dust from mine, or a tailings dam containing giglitres of contaminated water. 

open cut goldmine in New South Wales, Australia now used as a landfill site

Mining or not

Except that without mines we would not have energy, cars, trains, computers, mobile phones or engagement rings.

Include drilling for oil as mining and you can add anything made of plastic to this list.

In a sober [or perhaps drunken] moment, even the most ardent wearer of hemp would admit that mining has provided the raw materials for our modern lives.  They might also concede that those of us in mature economies will live far longer, healthier and more comfortably than any of our forebears could imagine was possible, thanks in no small part to a coal driven industrial revolution.

So the environmental issues with mining are set by this compromise — mining is going to be messy and potentially damaging to the way the environment works but it also delivers valuable raw materials that capital converts into wealth.

With mining this cost and benefit is stark.

If this were all there was to it than environmental issues with mining would be simple enough to fix.

All we have to do for each mine is…

  • measure the environmental cost
  • account both the financial and lifestyle benefits of mineral extraction
  • decide if the benefits outweigh the costs
  • establish rules to minimize the cost [regulation]
  • ensure that the mining company follows the rules [compliance] 

Environmental issues with mining are never that simple

The real environmental issues with mining is that this cost benefit approach only works if cost and benefit have equivalence – they mean the same thing and are valued in a similar way by everyone.

Clearly they don’t.

A great strength of humanity is our diversity.  There are as many views and value sets as there are people. There are people who see little or no value in the environment yet place great store in financial rewards. For some of these people mining is a great opportunity to pursue their values. It takes a lot of environmental cost to outweigh their perception of the benefits from mining.

Of course there are those with the opposite value set. Environmental impacts of any sort are heavy, and it takes a great deal of societal benefit to justify any impact.

Fair enough, you say, there are opposing views on any topic and we have rules to moderate and mediate conflicting interests.

If it were just environmentalism versus mining companies it might be fairly simple. But mining uses land and water and this brings in the importance of agricultural. If mining is near towns then there is dust, noise, and water pollution together with societal implications of migrant workers and temporary economic benefit.

This is the crux 

Environmental issues with mining are caricatures of environmental issues generally. They are about how we make compromises when there are many values to consider and passionate advocates and antagonists for each one.

many mines have issues with drainage and tailings dams

In Australia where mining has provided great individual and societal wealth for several decades the area footprint of all minds in the country [and there are some big ones] is similar the footprint of all the car parks in the country.

Just for comparison the  footprint of agriculture is over 4 million km2 or 53% of the land area.

› environmental issues with mining

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this open cut gold mine in NSW, Australia is now a landfill site with capacity to take the garbage from the city of Sydney for another 40 years

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