Mining Powers Modern Life, but Can Leave Scarred Lands and Polluted Waters Behind
By Matthew Ross
Modern society relies on metals like copper, gold and nickel for uses ranging from medicine to electronics. Most of these elements are rare in Earth's crust, so mining them requires displacing vast volumes of dirt and rock. Hard rock mining – so called because it refers to excavating hard minerals, not softer materials like coal or tar sands – generated $600 billion in revenues worldwide in 2017.
The Trump administration has revived several controversial mining proposals that previously were blocked or stalemated. They include the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay and leasing around Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It also approved a large copper mine in southern Arizona, which was subsequently blocked by a federal court ruling.
I study human-altered landscapes, including areas impacted by mines. Mining operations are major water pollution sources and can cause problems that persist for generations. Their global footprints also directly reshape significant portions of Earth's topography, leaving indelible evidence of human presence.
Digging Deep and Wide
In most locations, concentrations of copper, gold and other elements are too low to be extracted profitably. But in some spots they occur in seams of mineable, high-concentration minerals called ores. The economically viable concentration of a mineral depends largely on its market price. Gold ore can be viable at concentrations as low as 0.0001%, while copper becomes uneconomic below 0.5%.
To reach these deposits underground, miners tunnel, dig open pits or scrape through the earth's surface. The choice of technique depends on factors including how consolidated the ore is, the geologic setting and the depth of the ore.
Deep mines disturb the smallest amount of surface land, but are inherently more dangerous for miners. Far below the earth's surface, crews constantly risk encountering toxic gas fumes or stale air with no life-giving oxygen. Other dangers include earthquakes and equipment failures. In 2010, 33 Chilean miners spent over two months trapped underground in a copper-gold mine after a ramp collapsed, but ultimately were rescued.
Growing international emphasis on mine safety and changes in technology and ore quality have prompted a shift from deep mining to pit mines or surface mines, which access ores from the open air. Pit mines can be up to three-quarters of a mile deep, but typically cover less than 20 square miles. In contrast, surface mines typically extend less than 1,000 feet into the earth's crust, but can extend over hundreds of square miles.
Along with metals such as gold, silver and iron, mines also produce materials including sand and gravel, crushed stone and Portland cement. USGS
Accessing ore typically involves blowing apart bedrock, removing it from the shaft or pit and storing waste materials nearby after extracting the ore. In these heaps of loose rock, known as spoil piles, previously buried raw minerals are exposed to air or water. Sulfur-rich compounds in the rock react with oxygen and water, producing sulfuric acid, which can lower the pH of nearby streams to levels comparable to lemon juice or vinegar.
At its worst this process, known as acid mine drainage, can kill most native aquatic life. If acid drainage reaches groundwater, it may persist for decades or centuries and start a cascade of other impacts that impair water quality throughout local river networks.
When acid mine drainage lowers a stream's pH, other metals can also start to melt out of minerals in spoil piles, mine shafts or adjacent soils, leaching into soil and groundwater that intersects these areas. This creates waters with increased levels of cadmium, copper, lead and other heavy metals, which are harmful to aquatic insects, fish and human health.
These effects can be transported far downstream and last for generations. Old and abandoned mines around the world have harmed water quality long after mining has ceased. Their impacts can come as long-term slow leakage, or as sudden discharges like the 2015 Gold King spill near Silverton, Colorado, which released three million gallons of mine wastewater and debris into the Animas River.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mining sites in the U.S. West and Alaska. Of these, at least 33,000 have contaminated water supplies or left piles of mine waste contaminated with arsenic behind.
Altering the Planet's Shape
Mining operations have also left thousands of square miles of land altered. In some cases, particularly mountaintop removal mining, entire land forms are permanently reshaped. For millennia the planet's surface was configured by the slow geologic processes of wind and rain. In contrast, mining alters the very geology, topography, hydrology and ecology of sites within years or decades.
These earth-moving activities represent the kind of effect that has led many environmental scientists to argue that our planet has entered a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene – where human choices have a greater impact on the earth than purely natural processes. Landscape evolution moves in very slow cycles, so these topographic and geologic impacts may last far longer than mining's effects on water quality. And because geologic processes are slow, scientists don't know how these landscapes will diverge or converge in their future evolution.
Essential and Scarce
Like oil and gas producers, mining companies have to contend with the fact that the products they seek are scarce, and easily extractable pools have already been tapped, leading to decreases in ore quality. But demand for these metals continues to grow.
Rapidly expanding green energy will require extracting vast quantities of rare earth metals to power wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries and solar panels. Cellphones, computers, camera lenses and other goods also contain these materials.
Economic imperatives lead companies to continue to push for new mines, either in the U.S. or abroad, where environmental controls may be weaker. And new projects are likely to move more rock, consume more energy and have longer-lasting impacts than those that preceded them.
Ensuring that mining operations are subject to effective oversight and long-term monitoring, and that companies are held accountable for environmental damages, is a long-term challenge wherever mining takes place. The best way to completely avoid the complications that come from mining more minerals is to reduce consumption of them, make mining processes more efficient and make it more economic to recycle industrial materials and rare earth metals.
Matthew Ross is an assistant professor of water quality at Colorado State University.
Disclosure statement: Matthew Ross receives funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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