Feature: effect of mining on the environment


By Ebenezer Ashley (PhD.)

Empirical research has revealed that the degree and rate of changes observed in our native environment are often accelerated by mining activities (Attiogbe & Nkansah, 2020). Thus, mining in various forms contribute immensely to observed changes in our immediate and distant environments.

These changes include indiscriminate felling of trees to prepare stretch of land for illegal mining; and use of chemicals with adverse impact on water bodies, among others. The impact of pollution through mining activities on the environment could extend over several years, owing to the use of chemicals and substances with harmful effects.

Similarly, Duncan (2020) lamented on the closure of some water treatment plants in Ghana at a time when the activities of illegal small scale miners were on the rise; and the quality of water bodies were severely impacted. Public concerns heightened due to the foregoing challenges, identified as inimical to the development of most communities along the affected rivers, streams and other water bodies.

Stewart (2020) bemoaned the continuous dangers posed to human health and the environment by activities of both small scale miners and large scale miners. Activities of these miners are characterised by accidents, exposure to toxins and dust, pressures from management; and stress emanating from the working environment. The foregoing activities result in a range of diseases that impact negatively on health of mine workers.

Matschullat and Gutzmer (2012) outlined six major compartments of the environment. These include lithosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. Mining activities have damaging effects on any of these environmental components. However, scientists experience difficulties in the prediction of facts; and extent of damage caused by mining to these compartments.

 Attiogbe and Nkansah (2020) drew on the mixed methods approach to examine contribution of Newmont mining company to the pollution of various water bodies in the Akyem District in the Eastern Region of Ghana. The physico-chemical parameters test conducted for various water bodies revealed compliance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Ghana, save the test for River Pra in which high levels of TSS were recorded.

The high concentration of TSS was indicative of illegal mining activities upstream. These activities have the potential to affect quality of the water. The researchers suggested the need for small scale miners to be supported through training and supply of mining equipment to improve mining activities and standards; to minimise the eventual impact on the environment. The research outcomes add to the body of knowledge in the study area.

Duncan (2020) was interested in examining the effect of illegal mining activities on heavy metal pollution in the Fena River in the Amansie Central District in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. In all, seventy-two samples were collected from six distinct sampling sites and included in the research. The collection of samples was spread over a twelve-month period. That is, from January to December.

The study involved the investigation of six heavy metals from the Fena River. These included copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb). The researcher presented ranges of the heavy metals in water as follows: BDL for Fe, Cu, Pb, Cd, Hg and Zn; BDL – 1.041, 0.01-0.703; and BDL – 0.24, 0.17-16.43, 0.46-1.02. Analysis of the samples revealed three metals were in excess of the standard guidelines, rendering the polluted water unsafe for domestic and drinking purposes.

Results from analysis of the Nemerow’s pollution index identified metals such as Fe, Cd and Pb as the main metal pollutants. However, other metals including Zn, Hg and Cu were found to have no contributory effect. That is, they did not contribute to the pollution effect on the water bodies. Further analysis revealed only cadmium polluted all the six sampling sites; and lead impacted on five of the six sampling sites.

However, mercury which is often used in mining activities was absent from all the six sampling sites. The water quality index analysis indicated, the water quality in two sampling sites was marginal. Conversely, the water quality recorded for the remaining four sampling sites was poor. Illegal mining activities within and around the Fena River were identified as the major cause of pollution and constant deterioration in quality of the water. The pollution was attributed to the use of heavy metals in the water bodies (Duncan, 2020).

Aboka, Cobbina and Dzigbodi (2018) were interested in reviewing the effects of mining activities on the environment and health of individuals living in mining communities and the suburbs; and to identify policy options and responses related to mining in Ghana that could lead to improvements in the health of individuals; and promote environmental quality.

Aboka et al. (2018) acknowledged the valuable contribution of mining to Ghana’s development; and the risks and benefits accruing to individuals residing in mining communities. The authors argued, improvements in the environmental and health conditions of people living in mining areas are predicated on how effective the impacts of mining activities are managed by the mining companies, government and adjoining communities.

The twentieth century was believed to have been characterised by significant increase in the use of various metals, including precious metals by society. However, demand for metals in general in recent years has increased considerably due to accelerated development of notable economies such as China and India; and the pace of technological advancement witnessed across the globe.

Lumen (n.d.) noted expansions in the activities of metal mining thereof; and tremendous increase in mined metals compared to stocks of metal reserved underground. An example is the volume of copper mined and available for use above ground level globally, and particularly in the United States. Lumen (n.d.) affirmed surge in the use of copper in the United States from 73 kilograms or 161 pounds per person in 1932 to 238 kilograms or 525 pounds per person in 1999.

Haddaway, Cooke and Raito (2019) sought to examine the effects of metal mining and the effectiveness of measures related to mining mitigation on ecological and social systems in the boreal and Arctic regions; and to provide evidence thereof. The researchers identified mining activities to include exploration, prospecting, operation, construction, expansion, maintenance, repurposing of a mine, decommissioning and abandonment. These activities could have profound impact on structured systems of the environment and society in diverse ways. The effect could range from direct to indirect; and from positive to negative.

Stewart (2020) observed, degradation and contamination of the environment often result in ill-health in adjoining mining communities. However, costs of health treatments associated with mining are not limited to mine workers or the mining industry; they extend to everyone who shares in the socio-economic benefits of mining. The author further noted, concentration of key actors in the contemporary global economy is focused essentially on how to derive profits to the neglect of health conditions of workers in the mining sector. To stem the tide, development of evidence-based solutions should be the primary focus of any partnership constituted by government, industry and academia with communities to address teething environmental issues saddled with the mining industry.

Matschullat and Gutzmer (2012) postulated, the effect of mining on the environment relates to the influence of mining activities on native conditions and the globe, which serves as residence for all biota and human kinds. The effect could manifest in diverse ways; it may be damages or changes to the environment, ranging from short- to long-term impacts; and from highly spatially restricted to long distance consequences.

Further, mining activities as comparable to any human activities have some effects on the environment that are inherent and partly unavoidable. It is more likely than not for risks and hazards with detrimental consequences on the environment to be encountered in the mining process; and it is equally imperative for remedial measures to be taken to address the phenomena as they unfold. However, those mining challenges that could be envisaged and predicted require pre-emptive solutions. That is, they should be addressed before their occurrence. The researchers indicated, the potential effects and long-term aftermath of mining activities are manifold.

Aboka et al. catalogued the environmental impacts of mining to include pollution of water bodies resulting from the application of chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury when refining mined minerals. Others include the tendency for heavy metals and other pollutants to contaminate agriculture soils, leading to erosion of agriculture; and noise pollution caused by heavy trucks from mining centres.

It is instructive, in the opinion of Attiogbe and Nkansah (2020), for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce and ensure strict adherence to environmental laws to increase protection for water bodies and the environment in general. Finally, development of alternative livelihoods for communities ceding lands for mining activities would reduce the number of people actively involved in illegal small scale mining; and the impact of the latter on water bodies and the environment.

Lumen (n.d.) affirmed, issues of the environment emanating from mining activities could include loss of biodiversity, erosion, formation of sinkholes; and contamination of surface water, soil and ground water by chemicals from the processes of mining. It is a common place to observe large scale mining companies and artisanal miners engaging in additional forest logging in the mining area, so space could be created for storage of the debris and soil created.

Health of the local population could be impacted by contamination resulting from leaked chemicals, if the leakage is not properly controlled. The author described extreme examples of pollution from mining operations to include coal fires, which could last for years or decades; and consistently produce significant amounts of damage to the environment.

Rajaee, Obiri and Green (2015) noted some global mining factors which can contribute to recurring health-related issues among populations in local mining communities. These include deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, sinkholes, ponded waters and dammed rivers, significant use of water resources, contamination of surface and underground water, contamination of soil and acid mine drainage; and issues related to disposal of waste water.

Mondal (n.d.) noted the valuable contribution of natural resources including gold to the economic development of countries. These benefits notwithstanding, communities have to contend with environmental issues emanating from mining and extraction of the natural resources. Consistent with Rajaee et al. (2015), Mondal (n.d.) confirmed contamination of underground water through mining. The contamination occurs as a result of seepage and infiltration of leached drainage. Mondal (n.d.) further noted the contribution of mining to air pollution through suspension of gases and particles; and emission of dust.

Duncan (2020) confirmed growing concerns among Ghanaians about the activities of illegal small scale miners and the need for immediate- and medium-term remedial measures to stem the tide through improvements in methods of operation; and introduction of alternative employment opportunities, among others.

Haddaway et al. (2019) shared, though environments in mining areas could be altered through surface and underground mining, it is possible to ensure restoration through mitigation and remediation. In spite of the numerous socio-economic benefits that could be derived from mining, it is often argued mining has the tendency to engender conflicts, which in most cases, have no direct relationship with the decision to subject the land to underground and surface use.

The researchers found the Arctic and boreal regions as sensitive to effects from development on both systems of the environment and society. Further, multiple stressors such as pollution and climate change were found to have strong impact on aboriginal human communities and natural ecosystems.

Matschullat and Gutzmer (2012) summarised the steps involved in mining operations to include exploration through exploitation, processing of ore to decommissioning and rehabilitation. The last two are found at the final stages of the mining process. Generally, these activities are economically beneficial to the mining industry, mine workers, governments and mining communities through profit maximisation, earned income, tax revenue, service provision and job creation and job opportunities.

The foregoing benefits notwithstanding, the enumerated activities tend to have detrimental consequences on the environment. In some cases, the environmental impact may take several decades to rehabilitate as noted by Lumen (n.d.): for some waste dumps to become acid-neutral or acid-free and stop leaching to the environment, it may take hundreds to thousands of years.

Mondal (n.d.) revealed surface water is contaminated when harmful trace elements such as lead and cadmium are released. This corroborates Rajaee et al. who found mining as inimical to the safety and purity of surface water; and the eventual effect on health of inhabitants of local mining communities and the suburbs. Another profound threat posed by mining to the environment is the loss of soil fertility and quality, rendering the affected land toxic and not suitable for farming and agricultural activities in general (Mondal, n.d.; Aboka et al.; Rajaee et al.).

Lumen (n.d.) indicated ore processing generates significant volume of waste known as tailings. For instance, for every tonne of copper mines, ninety-nine tonnes of waste are generated. Nonetheless, the ratio is even higher for gold mining; and the tailings can be very harmful. Tailings are often produced in the form of slurry. Mining companies create ponds in valleys which exist naturally and most commonly, dump the tailings therein.

Usually, impoundments such as embankment dams or dams secure the ponds. The total number of tailings impoundments estimated to exist as at the year 2000 was three thousand and five hundred (3,500). Further assessment revealed the occurrence of two to five major failures and thirty-five minor failures annually. To illustrate, the Marcopper mining debacle resulted in the release of at least two million tonnes of tailings into a local river.

Stewart (2020) emphasised, holistic approach is required to address pertinent mining related issues such as health, protection of the environment, employment and economic stability. Collective involvement of all members of society is required. To achieve the desired results, each of the foregoing issues need not to be addressed as mutually exclusive; they must be perceived as interrelated and intertwined, requiring an integrated approach.

Thus, finding lasting solutions to challenges confronting the mining industry must be the prime responsibility of all and sundry; and not restricted to few stakeholders including government, firms in the mining sector and affected mining communities. The author affirmed the indispensable role of minerals in the lives of individuals by emphasising the containment of mined elements in some cell phones, houses and cars.

Aboka et al. affirmed the significance of precious metals such as gold in the stimulation of economic growth; and spurring infrastructure development, including construction of schools, road networks and health centres in towns and cities. They found the following activities related to mining to be harmful to human health and the environment: depletion of soil nutrients, destruction of wildlife habitat, pollution of water bodies, degradation of forest resources, reduction in water quality and threats to the lives of humans.

Mondal (n.d.) was concerned about the effect of leached-trace element on our environment. Leached-trace element impacts adversely on natural vegetation while deforestation, in the course of mining, leads to significant loss of fauna and flora. The author described this development as major consequence of mining.

Consistent with Aboka et al., Rajaee et al. and Stewart (2020), Mondal (n.d.) noted some major consequences of mining on the environment to include loss of habitat; and toxicity of soil and water leading to killing of many species and creation of instability in the ecosystem. Moreover, land used for mining activities loses its soil nutrient. It becomes wasteful and no longer suitable for agricultural purposes; nor suitable for industrial use. Beauty and landscape of human habitat are lost directly to mining activities; land reclamation and other identified strategies are unable to assure effective restoration of the land to its original form.

Lumen (n.d) noted, the waste generated from ore mills is classified as either mineralised or sterile. The former has the potential to generate acid and its movement and storage form an integral part of the planning process for mining activities. It is possible for the mineralised package to be determined by an economic cut-off. When this occurs, mining companies ensure the mineralised waste with near-grade is disposed of or dumped separately, so it could be treated later, should it become economically viable due to changes in market conditions.

It is not uncommon for mining firms to rehabilitate waste dumps to meet international specifications. When this occurs, the waste dumps standards are elevated above the local standards; and the former conform to or meet standards that are set and acceptable at the international level. The author stressed the need for each mining economy to ensure strict compliance with codes and regulations related to mining by the various mining firms within her jurisdiction.

After mining activities are ended due to depletion or other factors, the area is subjected to rehabilitation. Waste dumps created during the mining period are contoured to facilitate their flattening; and stability of the environment. It is possible for the ore mined to contain sulfides. When this occurs, it is covered with a layer of clay.

The latter prevents access of oxygen and rain from the air, which have the potential to oxidise the sulfides to produce sulfuric acid, a process commonly called acid mine drainage. Generally, the acid mine drainage is covered with soil while consolidation of the material is assured through planting of vegetation. The vegetation is protected with fences, so livestock do not denude it. Lumen (n.d.) noted eventual erosion of the layer created, though it is hoped the cover would slow the rate of leaching to such an extent to allow the environment handle the load of leaching and accompanying heavy metals.

Author’s Note

The above write-up was extracted from recent Publication on “Implications of Gold Trading for the Global Economy” by Ashley, Osei-Assibey, Gariba, Asubonteng and Ackah (2024) in the International Journal of Business and Management (IJBM). DOI No.: 10.24940/theijbm/2024/v12/i3/BM2403-012

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