Mining disasters have grabbed a lot of headlines of late, but mines pose another insidious threat that tends to get little press attention: pollution of the nearby environment which, in turn, threatens the health of the people who live nearby. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about water pollution from mines.
Mining operations use large amounts of fresh water to process recovered ore; the resulting mine effluent is typically a stew of hazardous acid-generating sulphides, toxic heavy metals, waste rock impoundments and water--and it is often deposited nearby in large free-draining piles where it can pollute land and water supplies for decades to come. When this waste water drains into local streams and aquifers, it can kill living organisms and render formerly pristine local waters unsafe to swim in or drink.
Increased soil erosion around mines also leads to excessive sedimentation of nearby waterways. This reduces the productivity of fisheries while limiting the availability of irrigation sources.
"Mining by its nature consumes, diverts and can seriously pollute water resources," reports the nonprofit Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SWDF). "...mining has become more mechanized and therefore able to handle more rock and ore material than ever before," reports SWDF. "Therefore, mine waste has multiplied enormously." The group warns that "as mine technologies are developed to make it more profitable to mine low grade ore, even more waste will be generated in the future."
Here in the U.S., increasing recognition of the water (and other types of) pollution problems caused by various forms of mining led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue much more stringent...