Mining and the Environment

Mining has been a topic on Australians’ lips for quite some time now. It’s one of Australia’s biggest industries, but it can also be hazardous and damaging to the environment. The argument on either side usually centre on the economy, alongside with the environmental concerns. The amount of self-interest within opinions on this subject matter is high, and you’ll often get a different answer depending on whom you speak to or who they work for.

Take for example Gina Rinehart, who has recently urged that “all government regulations be lifted for small businesses, and said more people should defend the mining sector because the nation could not survive without it.” Who is Gina Rinehart? Australia’s richest person, the daughter of mining magnate Lang Hancock and heiress to a massive fortune made from mining. To this day she maintains heavy ties to the industry. Examples of opposing opinions on either side of the argument are numerous and with this topic it’s often best look at the cold, hard facts and form your own opinion. Some questions that are often asked about the industry are:

  • Is the environmental impact as bad as people say it is?
  • Are we selling out future generation for the sake of immediate profit?
  • Should we be focusing more on renewable energy?
  • Is that even sustainable with today’s technology?

Trucks on a Mine SiteThe government has responded by imposing a number of regulations and limitations on the mining industry to help protect the environment. Again, opinions on whether this has been effective will vary based on who you ask.

If you ask anyone in the Greens party, they will say not enough has been done to protect our beautiful country. If you ask Gina Rinehart or any of the other wealthy Australians who make their fortunes by digging up earth, they will tell you the regulations are destroying Australia’s economy.

When mining for materials, the impact can be minimal or significant. This all depends on the tools used to extract, the types of ores extracted, the location of extraction, the efficiency of the companies being used to mine and a range of other factors. The impacts are often confined to the local area, however as mines become more expansive these impacts are being felt further and further afield. These impacts include air quality, land, and water quality. However, it can be hard to determine the long term effects on our fragile ecosystem as a whole.

The general process of mining, and the reason people may have cause for concern are due to the factors inherent in almost all mining.

Mining Produces Waste Rocks

miningexplosionThese rocks contain no desirable or valuable ores and are generally toxic to some degree. They’re left around the mining area and then usually filled into the hole that was just dug.

Air Quality is Compromised

The majority of air emissions associated with the mining industry include dust, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Large mining machinery and trucks create huge amounts of emissions too, and their ancillary parts such as the huge truck tyres that are worn out on a regular basis cause a massive ground waste problem as well.

Water Quality is Affected

Water is affected by numerous factors listed below. As the basis of life, it’s an important component when assessing damage to the environment.

Acid Mine Drainage – When a lot of excavated rock containing sulphide minerals interact with water and oxygen, sulphuric acid is produced. For more information on the effects of this acid on the environment you can visit here.

Heavy Metal contamination – Heavy metals (i.e. arsenic, cobalt, copper, cadmium, lead, silver and zinc) are present within many rocks, but the process of mining allows them to leech out into the environment where they can be carried downstream by water.

Chemical pollution – The spillage of chemicals used within the construction site can pollute and contaminate both the ground and groundwater. The effects of runoff into local streams or rivers can be seen downstream for many kilometers and affects plant life, fish, and all other life within the water.

Erosion – When land is excavated on a massive scale; unnatural land formations are created. This land is essentially ‘naked’ and exposed and is therefore much more susceptible to the natural environment. For example if it rains, waters can be contaminated by the newly exposed surfaces and once washed downstream into lakes and rivers, this pollution can contaminate other areas. Flora and fauna who rely on this rainwater are often devastatingly affected by runoff in this manner.

Rehabilitation

Within Australia, rehabilitation of the land being mined is encouraged by the government and in most cases completely essential. A bond is paid by the company working on the land to the state mining authority and is repaid upon successful rehabilitation of the land after mining has been completed.

Rehabilitation can involve the construction of pit walls, waste dumps, the covering of radioactive materials, and re-vegetation.

While the Australian economy is still being hauled along by our powerful mining industry, steps are being taken to reduce the impact and damage of mining here. We may never all agree on what level of pollution or land degradation should be considered acceptable, but you can rest assured that as long as foreign countries need our resources and are willing to pay for them, the Australian mining boom will continue.