How modern mining methods have changed the face of the industry … and its environmental impact.
By Laurynas Vegys
“I would NEVER invest in a mining company — they destroy land, pollute our water and air, and wreck the habitat of plants and animals.”
These were the points made to me by a woman at a social gathering after I told her what I do for living. She prided herself on her moral high ground and looked upon me with obvious disdain. It was clear that as a mining researcher, I was partly responsible for destroying the environment.
I knew a reasonable discussion with her wouldn’t be possible, so I opted out of trying. (As Winston Churchill said, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”) She left the party convinced her position was indisputably correct. But was she?
Not at all.
In fact, with few exceptions, today’s mining operations are designed, developed, operated, and ultimately closed in an environmentally sound manner. On top of that, considerable effort goes into the continued improvement of environmental standards.
My environmentalist acquaintance, of course, would loudly disagree with those statements. Many people may feel uncomfortable investing in an industry that’s so closely scrutinized and vehemently criticized by the public and mainstream media — whether there’s good reason for that criticism or not. This actually is to the benefit of those who dare to think for themselves.
So let’s examine what mining REALLY does to the environment. As Doug Casey always says, we should start by defining our terms.
How Do You Define “Environment”?
In modern mining, the term “environment” is broader than just air, water, land, and plant and animal life. It also encompasses the social, economic, and cultural environment and, ultimately, the health and safety conditions of anyone involved with or affected by a given mining activity.
Armed with this more comprehensive view of the industry’s impact on the environment, we can evaluate the effects of mining and its benefits in a more holistic fashion.
Impact on the Economy
According to a study commissioned by the World Gold Council, to take an example from mining of our favorite metal, the gold mines in the world’s top 15 producing countries generated about US$78.4 billion of direct gross value added (GVA) in 2012. (GVA measures the contribution to the economy of each individual producer, industry, or sector in a country.) That sum is roughly the annual GDP of Ecuador or Azerbaijan, or 30% of the estimated GDP of Shanghai, China. Here’s a look at the GVA for each of these countries.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the indirect effects of gold mining that come from spending in the supply chain and by employees on goods and services. If this impact were reflected in the numbers, the overall economic contribution of gold mining would be significantly larger.
Also, it’s evident that gold mining’s imprint on national economies varies considerably. For countries like Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uzbekistan, gold mining is one of the principal sources of prosperity.
Another measure of economic contribution is the jobs created and supported by businesses. The chart below shows the share of jobs created of each major gold-producing country.
The four countries with the highest numbers of gold mining employees are South Africa (145,000), Russia (138,000), China (98,200), and Australia (32,300). The industry also employs 18,600 in Indonesia, 17,100 in Tanzania, and 16,100 in Papua New Guinea. (As an aside, it’s quite telling that South Africa employs more gold miners than China, but China produces more gold than South Africa.)
Note that these employment figures don’t include jobs in the artisanal and small-scale production mining fields, nor any type of indirect employment attributable to gold mining — so they understate the actual figures
For many countries, gold mining accounts for a significant share of exports. As an example, gold merchandise comprised 36% of Tanzanian and 26% of Ghana’s and Papua New Guinea’s exports in 2012. Below, you see a more comprehensive picture of gold exports by 15 major gold-producing countries.
Other, often-overlooked ways in which the mining industry supports the economy include:
- Foreign direct investment (FDI). The three mining giants — Canada, the United States, and Australia — have been dominating this category for a number of years, both as the primary destinations for investment and as the main investor countries.
- Government revenue. All mining businesses, regardless of jurisdiction, have to pay certain levies on their revenue and earnings, including license fees, resource rents, withholding and sales taxes, export duties, corporate income taxes, and various royalties. Taken all together, these payments make up a large portion of overall mining costs. For example, estimates suggest that the total of mining royalty payments in 2012 across the top gold-producing countries worked out to the tune of US$4.1 billion. This, of course, doesn’t account for other types of tax normally applied to the mining industry.
- Gold products. Gold as a symbol of prosperity and the ultimate “wealth insurance” is very important to many nations around the globe — especially in Asia and Africa. Gold jewelry is given as a dowry to brides and as gifts at major holidays. In India, the government’s ban on gold purchases by the public led to so much smuggling that the incoming prime minister is considering removing it. Chinese, Vietnamese, and peoples of India and Africa may all be divided across linguistic lines, but they all share the view of gold being a symbol of prosperity and ultimate insurance against life’s uncertainties.
It’s also important to note that jobs with modern mining companies are usually the most desirable options for poverty-stricken people in the remote areas where many mines are built. These jobs not only pay more than anything else in such regions, they provide training and health benefits simply not available anywhere else.
Mining provides work with dignity and a chance at a better future for hundreds of thousands of struggling families all around the world.
Let’s now have a look at the most debated and contentious side to mining.
Impact on the (Physical) Environment
In previous millennia, humans labored with little concern for the environment. Resources seemed infinite, and the land vast and adaptable to our needs. An older acquaintance of ours who grew up in 1930s Pittsburgh remembers the constant coal soot hanging in the air: “Every day, it got dark around noon time.” Victorian London was famous for its noxious, smoky, sulfurous fog, year-round.
Initially, the mining industry followed the same trend. Early mine operations had little, if any, regard for the environment, and were usually abandoned with no thought given to cleaning up the mess once an ore body was depleted.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, the situation turned around, as the mining industry realized the need to better understand and mitigate its impact on the environment.
The force of law, it must be admitted, had a lot to do with this change, but today, what is sometimes called “social permitting” frequently has an even more powerful regulatory effect than government mandates. Today’s executives understand that good environmental stewardship is good business — and many have strong personal environmental ethics.
That said, mining is an extractive industry, and it’s always going to have an impact. Here’s a quick look at some of the biggest environmental scares associated with gold mining and how they are confronted today.
|Occurrence in the earth’s crust: Rare
Mercury, also known as quicksilver, has been used to process gold and silver since the Roman era. Mercury doesn’t break down in the environment and is highly toxic for both humans and animals. Today, the use of mercury is largely limited to artisanal and illegal mining. Industrial mining companies have switched to more efficient and less environmentally damaging techniques (e.g., cyanide leaching).
Developing countries with a heavy illegal mining presence, on the other hand, have seen mercury pollution increase. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates that 1,000 tons of mercury are annually released into the air, soil, and water as a result of illegal mining activity.
To help combat the problem, the mining industry, through the members of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), has partnered with governments of those nations to transfer low- or no-mercury processing technologies to the artisanal mining sector.
|Mining compound employed: NaCN
|Occurrence in nature: Common
This is one of the widely used chemicals in the industry that can make people’s emotions run high. Historically considered a deadly poison, cyanide has been implicated in events such as the Holocaust, Middle Eastern wars, and the Jonestown suicides. Given such associations, it’s no wonder that the public perceives it with alarm, without even adding mining to the equation.
It is important, however, to understand that cyanide:
- is a naturally occurring chemical;
- is not toxic in all forms or all concentrations;
- has a wide range of industrial uses and is safely manufactured, stored, and transported every day;
- is biodegradable and doesn’t build up in fish populations;
- is not cumulative in humans and is metabolized at low exposure levels;
- should not be confused with acid rock drainage (ARD; see below); and
- is not a heavy metal.
Cyanide is one of only a few chemical reagents that dissolves gold in water and has been used to leach gold from various ores for over a hundred years. This technique — known as cyanidation — is considered a much safer alternative to extraction with liquid mercury, which was previously the main method used. Cyanidation has been the dominant gold-extraction technology since the 1970s; in Canada, more than 90% of gold mined is processed with cyanide.
Despite its many advantages for industrial uses, cyanide remains acutely toxic to humans and obviously is a concern on the environmental front. There are two primary environmental risks from gold cyanidation:
- Cyanide might leach into the soil and ground water at toxic concentrations.
- A catastrophic spill could contaminate the ecosystem with toxic levels of cyanide.
In response to these concerns, gold mining companies around the world have developed precautionary systems to prevent the escape of cyanide into the environment — for example, special leach pads lined with a plastic membrane to prevent the cyanide from invading the soil. The cyanide is subsequently captured and recycled.
Further, to minimize the environmental impact of any cyanide that is not recycled, mine facilities treat cyanide waste through several processes that allow it to degrade naturally through sunlight, hydrolysis, and oxidation.
|Acid Rock Drainage (ARD)
|Target chemical: Sulfuric acid
|ARD occurrence in nature: Common
Contrary to popular belief, ARD is the natural oxidation of sulfide minerals such as pyrite when these are exposed to air and water. The result of this oxidation is an increase in the acidity of the water, sometimes to dangerous levels. The problem intensifies when the acid comes into contact with high levels of metals and thereby dissolves them, which adds to the water contamination.
Once again, ARD is a natural process that can happen whenever such rocks are exposed on the surface of the earth, even when no mining was involved at all. Possible sources of ARD at a mine site can include waste-rock piles, tailings storage facilities, and mine openings. However, since many mineral deposits contain little or no pyrite, ARD is a potential issue only at mines with specific rock types.
Part of a mining company’s environmental assessment is to conduct technical studies to evaluate the ARD potential of the rocks that may be disturbed. Once ARD has developed, the company may employ measures to prevent its spread or reduce the migration of ARD waters and perhaps even treat the water to reduce acidity and remove dissolved metals.
In some places where exposed sulfide minerals are already causing ARD, a clean, modern mine that treats all outflowing water can actually improve water quality.
|Occurrence in the earth’s crust: Moderate
Similar to mercury, arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is commonly found as an impurity in metal ores. Arsenic is toxic in large doses.
The largest contribution of arsenic from the mining industry comes from atmospheric emissions from copper smelting. It can also, however, leach out of some metal ores through ARD and, when present, needs to be removed as an impurity to produce a saleable product.
Several pollution-control technologies have been successful at capturing and removing arsenic from smelting stacks and mine tailings. As a result, between 1993 and 2009, the release of arsenic from mining activities in Canada fell by 79%. Similar figures have been reported in other countries.
Now, here’s our quick stab at dispelling the three most widespread myths environmentalists commonly bring up in their rants against the mining industry.
Myth 1: Mining Uses Excessive Amounts of Land
Reality: Less than 1% of the total land area in any given jurisdiction is allotted for mining operations (normally far less than that). Even a modest forestry project affects far more trees than the largest open-pit mine. Mining activities must also meet stringent environmental standards before a company can even get a permit to operate.
The assessment process applied to mining operations is very detailed and based on a long string of policies and regulations (e.g., the National Environmental Policy Act in the US). Environmentalists may claim that the mining industry is rife with greedy land barons, but there’s more than enough evidence to the contrary.
Myth 2: Mining Is Always Detrimental to the Water Supply
Reality: Quite the opposite, actually. Before mine operations start, a mining company must submit a project proposal that includes detailed water utility studies (which are then evaluated by scientists and government agencies). Many companies even install water supply systems in local communities that lack easy access to this basic resource. It’s also common for the rocks to be mined to be naturally acid generating — a problem the mine cleans up, by its very nature.
Some die-hard zealots blame the mining industry for consuming huge amounts of water, but in fact it normally only uses +1% of the total water supplied to a given community, and 80% of that water is recycled continuously.
Myth 3: Mining Is Invasive to the Natural Environment
Reality: Yes, mining activity in certain countries has led to negative outcomes for certain plants and animals — not to mention the rocks themselves, which are blasted and hauled away. However, the industry has progressed a long way in the last few decades and, apart from rare accidents, the worst is behind us now.
The key determinant here is compliance. All mining activity must comply with strict environmental guidelines, leading up to and during operations and also following mine closure. After mining activity ends, the company is required to rehabilitate the land. In some cases, the land is remediated into forests, parks, or farmland — and left in better condition than before.
It’s worth reiterating that in some cases — where there’s naturally occurring ARD or where hundreds of years of irresponsible mining have led to environmental disasters — a modern mine is a solution to the problem that pays for itself.
Can You Be Pro-Mining and an Environmentalist? Absolutely.
Gold mining (and mining in general) is extractive and will always leave some mark on our planet. Over time, however, the risks have been mitigated by modern mining technologies. This is an ongoing process; even mining asteroids instead of planet Earth is now the subject of serious consideration among today’s most visionary entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, the (vastly diminished) risks associated with mining are far outweighed by the economic contribution and positive effects on local communities and the greater society. This net-positive contribution is here to stay — unless our civilization opts for collective suicide by sending us all back to the Stone Age.
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