Mining characterizes a developmental and destructive activity where ecology suffers at the behest of economy. Unfortunately, in many countries the mineral resources are superimposed by ecosystems and biological resources. Therefore, mining operations involve biodiversity erosion, habitat destruction and deforestation. The processing and extraction of minerals and ores have led to widespread environmental pollution. However, mankind cannot abstain from the underground resources which characterize raw materials for development.
Scientific mining operations with subsequent judicious use of geological resources and regeneration of depleted waste lands accompanied by ecological restoration, while searching for eco-friendly alternatives and substitutes, must be pursued to provide the solution. The social and environmental impacts associated with mining operations have been significantly documented. This paper evaluates those social and environmental issues which form the basis for the critical ecosystems and mining framework. Social and environmental impacts are divided into: poverty alleviation, impacts to habitat and biodiversity, waste management issues and indirect impacts.
Key actors in the mining industry
Mining associations, agencies and chambers are significant actors in the mining industry. Their role include harmonizing mining companies through harmonized operational procedures, where communication with the labor organizations, the government and other actors in the mining industry. These act as a unified front which characterizes the authoritative function of the mining industry. Nongovernmental organizations, labor organizations and interest groups are critical key actors in the mining industry; their actions in championing social and environmental challenges which result from the activities of the mining industry. Focus groups, environmental organizations and peer groups sensitizing the core issues that arise as a result of mining; while at the time challenging actions deemed to cause negative impacts to the environment.
The government plays a critical role through ministries of industry and mining. These determine whether mining offers a viable option to the economic objectives of a country. Meanwhile, the benefits of mining are critically analyzed to determine safety, profitability and sustainability of mining as an economic activity. Community based organizations; on the other hand, are essential in sensitizing the community on issues affecting them as a result of mining. These represent the communities within which mining activities take place. They lobby for or against the mining industry significantly on environmental, health and safety concerns. The media is a critical key factor in the mining industry as it facilitates information flow to all actors. The media reports on actions taken or ignored by each stakeholder in the mining industry.
Therefore, in light of these, the mining industry is examined, reviewed and merited by the core actors in an effort to create an ideal mining industry.
Industry review by the key actors
The mining industry is influenced by the government which makes policies, rules and regulations that allow mining activities. However, the government is influenced by environmental peer groups, international organizations with vested interest in mining and its impacts. The actions of mining companies are influenced by shareholders, government, local communities and environment. These factors are critical to the mining industry`s actions and the impacts they have on the environment, including inhabitants of the surrounding ecosystems.
While mining faces a number of issues, significant among them is the issue of governance. The mining oversight organizations are prone to manipulation to champion aspects of mining which may negate the interests of all stakeholders. Therefore, governing the mining industry should be an inclusive exercise where all participants with vested interests in the mining industry are integrated in the managerial and decision making process of mining. While, economic viability, public safety and sustainability characterizes the critical aspect of mining; it is essential that these be subjected under transparent due process in order to satisfy all actors in the sector.
The government plays a critical role in the governance of the mining industry; significantly through issuing mining rights, determination of the viability of a prospecting or mining activity and approval of mining licenses. In light of these, loop holes in the system may compromise the integrity of these exercises; therefore, the inclusion of the mining industry, nongovernmental organizations and community based organizations in the decision making is critical to ensure complicity with stipulated human and environmental safety standards.
Mining characteristically entails the extraction of significant quantities of unwanted matter, in most cases, contributing to a significant percentage of any nation’s waste output. For instance, a significant percentage of the raw materials used or produced are attributable to coal, fossil fuels, and metal mining (Matthews et al., 2000, p.107). The quantity of waste produced is dependent on the nature of the extracted mineral and the extent of the mineral deposits. Minerals, such as silver and gold, characterize the most wasteful metals, where at least 99 % of the extracted ore ends up being a waste.
In contrast, iron mines do not produce a lot of waste, with an average 60 % of mined ore ending up as waste (Sampat, 2003). The disposal of significant amounts characterizes significant challenges to the environment and vested stakeholders. The effects are in most cases less pronounced in below ground mining; hence, they produce less waste in contrast to open pit mines, which produce significantly higher amounts of waste. Metal extraction impacts have pronounced impacts on the degradation of receiving water bodies and aquatic ecosystems, often leading to water quality being compromised, thus, culminating to water pollution, which results from acid drainage, metal deposition and sedimentation.
Many mines and mineral processing plants are faced with challenges in reducing the organic matter that ends being drained in streams, rivers and other aquatic habitat. Erosion from runoff and dumped rocks after heavy rainfalls leads to an increase in the sediment load of nearing water channels. Meanwhile, mining characteristically modifies flow morphology by changing the slope, changing bank stability, and diverting water flow in streams.
These factors can significantly influence the composition of water load, affecting water quality. The turbidity of water is significantly increased by higher concentrations of sediments, therefore, reducing penetrating light to aquatic organisms and plants. In addition, shallow water organisms in oceans and streams are smothered by sediments, leading to a decrease in available space for spawning and migration of fish or eliminating significant food sources. In other cases, high sediment deposits in water make water channels to become shallow, leading to higher flooding risks during the rainy seasons, influenced by high volumes of water.
Minerals bearing sulfide produce sulphuric acid when they come into contact with water or oxygen. This results in an acid rain, which is amongst the impacts of mining that affects the environment negatively. The presence of bacteria that consumes acid influences the process by speeding it up, while leaching of acidic water on other metals results in contamination of ground and surface water. This process occurs at a rapid rate and may continue until the entire sulfide is finished. This mat take long periods of time given the nature of the enormous size of rocks that are exposed in any given mine site. In spite of the complexity of the chemical processes involved, given conditions may reduce the extent of its occurrence. For instance, in cases where neutralizing minerals are present, such as carbonates, the environmental pH has base characteristics, while, if mitigating and preventive measures are in place, there is a minimal likelihood that an acid mine drainage will occur (McLemore, 2008, p.40).
Aquatic life is negatively affected by acid mine drainage through water runoffs and drainage from streams. A significant percentage of aquatic life, such as fish, indicates a high sensitivity to acidic water; therefore, they are unable to reproduce or breed when the pH levels are below 5, while in some instances, when the pH is less than 6 some end up dying (Sampat, 2003). In light of this, the prediction and determination of the likelihood of acidity occurring can be significant in determining and resolving problems where they are most likely to occur. Applicable methods differ from computations factoring the residue of acidic minerals, in contrast to availability of countering minerals to significantly complicated laboratory tests such as kinetic testing. However, an accurate prediction of the quantity of metals that are likely to leach if acid drainage occurs is not realizable in spite of such complex tests as laboratory-based tests. This is as a result of the variances in composition and scale that occur during ex situ analysis of the samples.
While most mines use reagents, metals and other compounds in processing valuable minerals, a number of these are significantly preferred as a result of their conductive capacities. Mercury and cyanide are especially preferred for this purpose; however, their impacts when released into the environment are detrimental. The contact of metals with the environment is likely to be initiated by accidental release from acid drainage. While minimal quantities of metals are perceived to be critical to the continued existence of a significant percentage of organisms, while high volumes are exceedingly toxic. Few aquatic and terrestrial species have been observed to be tolerant of metals, although some may have assimilated in due time. In most cases, the quantity of animal and plant species reduces as the concentration of metals increases.
Habitat and biodiversity
Mining can lead to more impacts originating beyond the mining site. The most evident effect resulting from mining activities is the destruction of plants, thus, changing the presence of shelter and food for organisms. Significantly, mining can influence biodiversity by altering species structure and composition. For instance, acid drainage in rivers results in a deficient marine environment.
A number of invertebrates and algae indicate higher tolerance to acid exposure and high concentrations of metals and thrive in environments depicting less competition. Exotic species, such as insect pests and weedy plants, may thrive in given areas while native species indicate a declining trend. Meanwhile, some wildlife find the restructured habitat created by mines to be beneficial, for instance, bighorn sheep assume mined caves and walls as their shelter. In recognizing the significance of natural habitat and ecosystems, different governments have segregated areas like marine reserves, national parks and other protected areas as a sanctuary for these species. International treaties and conventions have established mechanisms and guidance for listing regions with exceptional global significance. Gas, oil and mineral development have been indicated as threatening a significant percentage of these sites.
Additionally, mines also pose social and environmental challenges as a result of potential disruptions to local communities and ecosystems. Mining is dependent upon gaining access to natural resources, such as water and land (Ashton et al., 2002). Although the magnitude of most mining operations is minimal compared to other land uses, such as forestry and industrial agriculture, mining companies have to confine to the location of economically viable mineral reserves, some of which are more likely to overlap with significant ecosystems or indigenous community lands.
In most cases, observed impacts from mining result from indirect effects, such as colonization and road building. For instance, an area of approximately 400-2,400 hectares was colonized in the Amazon basin for every kilometer of oil pipeline constructed (Ledec, 1990:592); while, in the Philippines, ecosystems were under pressure as a result of the migration of small scale farmers. The stimulation of factors, like migration as a result of mining, is a significant threat to these sensitive ecosystems (ESSC, 1999).
There have been concerns regarding the potential for conflicts over mining and other land uses, prompted some societies and communities to approve non binding referendums, which aimed at banning mineral development. For instance, the Peruvian community of Tambogrande voted in June 2002 rejecting mining in their country due to issues regarding the estimated displacement of 50% of its residents and concerns regarding the impacts of mining on the community’s traditional way of life (Oxfam, 2002). In accordance with a study, serious social difficulties and problems, such as food insecurity, marginalization, loss of access to public and common resources or services, may result from displacement (MMSD, 2002, p.158-159).
Poverty Alleviation and Wealth Distribution
Developing countries in most instances seek to exploit natural resources as a means of providing revenue. It is assumed that, minerals are part of a nation’s natural capital; hence, more capital is an indication of the riches of a nation (Davis and Tilton, 2003). For instance, mineral deposits of Papua New Guinea account for approximately two thirds of export earnings (GoPNG, 2002). In Botswana, one third of the country’s GDP and 75% of export earning s are attributable to diamond mining. However, in spite of mineral exports characterizing a significant percentage of nation’s exports, this does not always lead to notable economic growth but often leads to increased cases of poverty and political instability.
The lack of economic growth in mineral and oil dependent countries is not entirely a result of dependency on these resources, but the rationale is inconclusive (Ross, 1999, p.297). However, reported cases of low levels of employment, use of imported technology, significant market volatility of minerals, institutional corruption, mismanagement and competition with other sectors may be significant contributing factors (Sideri and Johns, 1990). Additionally, inadequate cost accounting measures result in overestimation of the benefits in the event that subsidies to the mining industry are left untouched. For instance, a study depicting the economic significance of mining in Canada concluded that in 2000-2001 the industry was subsidized by C$13,095 per job created (Winfield et al., 2002).
In spite of mineral development resulting in economic growth, the reaped benefits are not in many cases shared equitably, while local communities in the mineral development vicinity tend to suffer significantly. However, in some instances marginal areas have derived employment and economic growth from the mining sector; however, these jobs are limited in duration and number. Meanwhile, communities that become dependent on mining in sustaining their economies are significantly vulnerable to adverse social impacts, more so in the instance where the mine closes. Mining raises wage levels, which leads to displacement of a number of businesses and residents and cases of elevated expectations (Kuyek and Coumans, 2003). Mining has the effect of triggering indirect adverse social impacts, such as prostitution, alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases (Miranda et al., 1998).
In worst cases, minerals have fueled conflict in a number of developing countries through the provision of revenue for warring factions to acquire weapons. Such cases are pronounced in Africa, where the control of mines for valuable minerals, such as diamonds, is an objective for most rebels seeking revenue to finance civil wars (Sherman, 2002). For instance, in Angola the income generated from of UNITA's diamond sales approximated $3.7 billion from diamond sales in the period between 1989 and 2000 in order to finance their resistance campaigns against the former Angolan government. In this period, more than 500 000 people died in Angola, while the government claimed to use the revenue from oil development to acquire weapons (Global Witness, 1999). In Bougainville, New Guinea, civil war erupted as a result of unresolved issues regarding a copper mine (Hyndman, 2001).
Key Regulatory Issues and Regulatory Framework
The extent to which mining partakes to the appropriation of natural resources and economic development depends significantly on the qualitative aspect of national regulations. Countries without strict regulations and lacking the ability to enforce the law are deficient of significant safeguards for ascertaining that mining, gas and oil development does not destroy critical natural resources which are crucial to the citizens` way of life. A formidable regulatory framework enables countries to implement standards that companies are required to follow: contention has been presented that a significantly flexible regulatory framework is more preferable in contrast to the traditional control and command approach (Otto and Cordes, 2002, p.8-16). A comprehensive regulatory framework for mineral development includes aspects of social laws, monitoring capacity, environmental impact assessments, environmental liability and environmental quality.
Environmental Quality and Social Laws
A framework of environmental regulations and laws provides direction to oil and mining companies with regard to the country’s expectations for social and environmental performance. A number of nations have strict regulations and laws, which include soil, air and water standards, site clean ups and requirements for decommissioning of facilities and indigenous community rights. In the United States, hard rock mining is exempt from a number of regulations which apply to other polluting industries; meanwhile designated standards are at the discretion of state governments. Hence, there are no federal minimum reclamation standards; thus, government agency investigations have concluded that reclamation is insignificant at many mines on federal lands (Galloway and Perry, 1997, p.193-218).
Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea have been observed to routinely award mining companies with exemptions which do not require them to meet water quality standards (Shearman, 2001, p.175-177). An inherent difficulty in implementing laws has been observed to stem amongst government agencies as a result of conflicting mandates. For instance, in Papua New Guinea a significant dilemma facing policy makers is creating a balance in its role as beneficiary and advocate of mining projects, and its mandate in protecting the country’s natural resources (Hughes and Sullivan, 1989, p.45). Whereas, in the Philippines, government agencies are actively involved in the regulation of water resources, which has resulted in overlapping jurisdictions and fragmented management (ESSC, 2003).
Environmental Liability and Monitoring Capacity
A critical aspect of effective environmental legislation is the process of holding polluters accountable. This is realizable through a provision in the law to post a reclamation bond, which is withheld until such time that a company satisfactorily complies with governmental standards for remediation and closure of a mine site. There are no stipulated international standards for the retained amount in reclamation bonds, where estimated potential environmental damages are in most cases provided by the mining companies, which often misrepresent true costs.
In 1999, 5.7 million cubic meters of acidic waste were exposed to marine environment; this included a significant loss of fish and was considered as one of the major natural disasters in Philippines (ESSC, 2003). Countries may also pass legislation that establishes fines and punishment for those found guilty of polluting. However, the lack of any definitive legislation in most countries does not assume the liability of cleaning up (Warhurst, 1999, p.35). Although a number of countries have legislation that requires mitigation of social and environmental impacts of oil and mining development, the ability to monitor performance and enforce laws is significantly lacking. Therefore, a lack of staff and resources indicates a significant number of mines that remain uninspected.
Governance and policy changes
Mining denotes a critical source of natural resources; therefore, has a significant impact in the economy. While the social and environmental challenges continue to be a concern, the mining industry has opted to inclusive governance and policy making. This encompasses key actors in the mining industry. The creation of training and developmental programs, institutions and centers has been among the significant governance changes to be effected in the mining industry (AusAID, 2012). Nations with significant natural resources to be mined have embraced these changes where training, education and technical advice are critical to the success of these changes.
The community benefits through these changes where infrastructure, job creations and health initiatives are among the motivating factors in these changes. In most third world countries, community participation is critical in ensuring that civil strife or political unrest does not occur; however, those immediately affected by the mining industry are relocated to a destination of their choice or are compensated adequately. Partnership programs, transparency initiatives, advisory bodies and autonomous audit functions are among the significant changes in governance and policy changes in the mining industry (AusAID, 2012).
Mining is a critical economic activity, whose contribution to the creation of modern society has been invaluable. However, the environmental impacts associated with mining have led to detrimental consequences to the environment and inherent ecosystems. Minerals are in nature wasting assets. They characterize non-renewable resources, thus, once mined, they are irreplaceable. Therefore, their use should be in a judicious manner, bearing in mind state requirements. However, mining should not be based on short term goals, but rather it should be considered as long term investments whose pros and cons should be critically evaluated by all stakeholders. In light of this, non-essential mining should be discontinued which have no value to the development of all stakeholders and threatens the safety of the environment.