Editor’s note: The aim of the Geology and Mining series is to introduce early career professionals and students to various aspects of mineral exploration, development, and mining in order to share the experiences and insight of each author on the myriad of topics involved with the mineral industry and the ways in which geoscientists contribute to each.

Abstract

All human activities produce waste and affect our environment, including the solids and water involved during mining and metallurgical operations. The nature and characteristics of these impacts vary considerably depending on many factors, including the geology of the operation, type of mining and processing implemented, sensitivity of the local environment to the operation, and proximity to human settlements or sensitive environmental settings. Environmental challenges associated with mineral extraction and processing include impacts to land, air, water, soil, flora, fauna, and socioeconomic fabric. Mines can generate large land disturbances and can also result in sterilization of land through deposition of barren, nonreactive rock piles (termed waste) during production and after operation. Other mine waste piles can be chemically reactive and interact with precipitation and runoff, leading to metal and sulfate release into surface and ground water. Impacts on soils may result directly from weathering of mine waste or through interaction with affected waters. Interaction with the atmosphere may occur, with release of aerosol or airborne metals or minerals affecting air quality. In addition, the release of gases containing CO2, SOx, and NOx and halide gases can lead to acid rain or general lowering of air quality.

These challenges can be predicted, quantified, and understood during the mine design and operations processes by application of geologic knowledge, geochemical and hydrogeological data, and mining experience. Such understanding can then identify appropriate solutions, including changes to operations through sequenced mining to reduce exposure of material with high metal or sulfide content; partial or full backfill of mine excavations; use of cemented waste backfill; modifications to water discharge designs; and treatment of water prior to discharge. A critical aspect of addressing environmental challenges and reducing environmental impact involves engagement with communities, government, and society. The confidence of society is essential to the delivery of long-term sustainable plans.

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