Mining Pollution Debate Summary
Though it has had many negative impacts on the environment in the past, mining is a vital industry completely necessary to our economy and lives. Nearly every item we use or encounter in our day to day lives is mined or contains mined products. Without the excavation of such materials things like computers, televisions, large building structures, electricity, and cars would not be possible. Virtually every technological and medical advance uses minded materials, without which millions would suffer. Some examples of minerals in the home include the telephone which is made from as many as 42 different minerals, including aluminum, beryllium, coal, copper, gold, iron, silver, and talc. A television requires over 35 different minerals, and more than 30 minerals are needed to make a single personal computer. Without boron, copper, gold and quartz, your digital alarm clock would not work. Every American uses an average 47,000 pounds of newly mined materials each year, which is higher than all other countries with the exception of Japan, which is a staggering figure representative of our dependence and need for mined minerals. Coal makes up more than half of nation’s electricity, and will continue to be the largest electrical supplier into 2020 & accounting for some 95 percent of the nation's fossil energy reserves – nine of every ten short-tons of coal mined in the United States is used for electricity generation
. As the population of the world grows more mineral resources must be exploited through mining in order to support the rising demand for such products. Though it may present a hazard to the environment and those physically located nears the mines, the materials extracted from mines are essential to our survival.
One group of people who mining benefits most is the miners themselves. Many people have the notion that the miner is an underpaid and abused laborer who is exploited by the mining companies. This is far from the truth. Firstly the average annual salary of a miner is $49,000.00: significantly higher than the $36,000.00 average annual wage for all other private industries in the United States. Some miners, such as coal miners in Alaska, average $86,000.00 annually. As to the hazards of working in mine, the mining industry is now recognized as one of the safest, with a lower rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses per 100 employees than the agriculture, construction or retail trades. Mining accounted for only 2.1 percent of U.S. fatal work related injuries in 2001. In addition, U.S. metal/nonmetal miners reported only 4.7 non-fatal injuries per 100 workers in 2000, a lower rate of occupational injuries than grocery and department stores, hospitals, restaurants and even hotels. Black lung, once a common ailment of the coal miner, has seen a sharp decline as increased understanding of the cause and prevention of the ailment have lead to many miners wearing protective masks with air filtration systems. There are over 100,000 coal miners in the US alone, and over 175,000 employed in other mine types. These people depend on mining for the livelihood, which pays well, and without these positions may not be able to support themselves or their families. Mining is one of the highest paying (with the most benefits – medical, accident, life, etc) jobs available for those willing to do the job.
One of the side effects of mining is the creation of mine tailings, and these tailings often have a high concentration of heavy metals and radioactive isotopes. The superfund program, which began in the early 1980s, is involved with cleaning up sites with high concentrations of toxic waste materials. There are many such sites in the United States, and on September 29, 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency announced 12 new sites had been added to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List for cleanup. One such site is the Cherokee County Galena Site in Cherokee county, Kansas. Before the superfund redevelopment initiative moved into the area the land and water were badly contaminated from a century of zinc and lead mining. Much of the land in the former mine area was devastated: stripped of vegetation and uninhabitable by wildlife. The surface and groundwater in the area had become highly acidic by the heavy metals it picked up as it flowed through the many open mine shafts, pits, and piles of mine waste that covered the 25 square mile site. When a student of the Kansas School of Medicine published a study in 1981 noting elevated levels of lead in children residing in the area the EPA stepped in to clean up the area with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and began the cleanup process in 1991. By diverting stream channels from areas with high concentrations of waste, filling hollow mine shafts, and relocating 2.1 million cubic years of mine waste the land was utterly transformed. The cleanup was completed by 1994, having transformed the barren badlands into pristine prairie grassland with stabilized soils and lush vegetation, which encouraged the return of many species of wildlife to the area (see figures 1 & 2). The restored land reduced many health hazards for the 4,500 residents living in the Galena area by reducing the concentrations of heavy metals in drinking and lead concentrations in soil. Other such superfunds have met with equal success. The Eagle Mine superfund project significantly reduced the concentration of zinc in the waters and fish which resulted in increased aquatic life population in the waterways downstream from the consolidated tailings pile (see fig 3). Superfund sites reclaim ecosystems harmed by mining and return them to a natural cleanliness in which animal and plant life can again flourish in an unpolluted environment.
Superfunds represent the pinnacle in land restoration, but many other smaller scale, but equally important, cleanup projects exist, many operating in still active mines, working to reduce the level of pollutants to acceptable levels. Local and state trust funds have been created in many areas, sponsored by mining companies, to ensure emergency money is available that officials can aces in case of an emergency. One such fund is the Nevada Environmental Commissions Fund which contains $10 million to keep heap leach ponds from overflowing during the time between when mine operators abandon a project and when their bonding companies pay out for reclamation – usually between 4 to 6 months. The EPA Emergency Response Team is a group of scientists and engineers who are deployed to fix problems should they occur. One such example of their work is the clean up of asbestos near a mine in Libby, Montana. When it was discovered that dangerous levels of asbestos were present in the air at a train loading station the team was deployed to reclaim and remove the material. Within six months of their arrival the levels of asbestos in the air in populated areas had dropped over 60%, to well within safe levels. The EPA sponsors several clean up divisions dedicated to the reduction of mining pollution
in the United States. By monitoring the water of areas near mining facilities for acid drainage, mercury, sulfur, and other harmful mining pollutants they are able to take necessary action when the event for a cleanup arises. One such example is the Powell River Virginia Watershed Ecosystem Restoration Project. By raising the pH level and removing metals from acid mine drainage the river has once again become habitable by fish that were previously wiped out. With the use of successive alkalinity producing systems, anoxic limestone drains, and reverse alkalinity producing systems the river has begun is transformation back into its once clear and healthy waters. Hundreds of projects are in operation at or near mining facilities that ensure the regulated output of potentially harmful mining byproducts.
New technologies are in developments which are able to reduce cyanide output form gold and other heavy mineral mines by as much as 50%, sulfur dioxide emissions by 25%, and particulate emissions by 50%. Pressure leach technology is a key factor in the reduction of harmful emissions of many chemicals, and is presently in operation in hundreds of mining facilities in the United States. Companies such as Mine Waste Technology Applications, Inc. focuses on methods of cleaning the waste from mines including: reduction of mobility, toxicity, and volume of waste; development of integrated processing for water pits; treatment of acidic, metal-laden, water drainage; nitrate removal through ion exchange, electrochemical ion exchange, and biological denitrification; biocyanide destruction (uses bacteria to destroy cyanide in gold mining effluents); arsenic oxidation; and cyanide heap biological detoxification. Many of these technologies are being gradually incorporated into mines all over the world to reduce negative environmental effects of mining. Mining has evolved into an industry whose positives on the world far outweigh the negatives. With continued technological advancements and responsible monitoring of mining operations there is no need for concern over pollution or environmental harm.
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