Massive landslide at the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah. Photo: Deseret News.

Metal mining provides us with materials essential for modern life. But mining also is the most destructive industry in the world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is the nation’s #1 toxic polluter.


Landscapes changed forever

Open pit mines – the most common type of industrial scale mine -- create huge, irremediable scars. The open pit at Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine southwest of Salt Lake City is almost a kilometer deep and 4 kilometers wide.

Because most modern ore is extremely low grade, these mines generate huge amounts of waste. The average gold ring generates more than 20 tons of waste.

Mine waste often contains toxic substances, like arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, that are harmful to public health and fish and wildlife when released into the environment.  

Earthwork’s research of 14 operating U.S. copper mines (accounting for 89% of U.S. copper production) found that 100% had pipeline spills, 92% failed to control mine wastewater and 28% had tailings impoundment failures – polluting drinking water, destroying fish and wildlife habitat, harming agricultural land and threatening public health.

Water polluted in perpetuity

Perhaps even more damaging -- because it doesn’t stay on the mine site -- is pollution from acid mine drainage: sulfides in rock exposed by mining reacting with water and air to form sulfuric acid. The EPA estimates 40% of the headwaters of western watersheds have been polluted by mining, and acid mine drainage is a main reason why.

In the United States alone, government and company data document 40 existing mines that will contaminate 17-27 billion gallons of water every year, forever.

Globally, mining also dumps mining waste directly into lakes, river and oceans: over 180 million tonnes each year.

Communities destroyed

Half of all the gold mined from 1995 to 2015 is likely to come from the traditional territories of indigenous people.

Massive protests in Bucharest, Romania, opposing the proposed Rosia Montana open pit gold mine.
Massive protest in Bucharest, Romania, opposing the development of the
Rosia Montana open pit gold mine.

That is problematic for many reasons, primary among them that few countries have codified the principles of free prior and informed consent (FPIC).

Without FPIC, mining can and does try to forcibly resettle entire communities like Rosia Montana.

Mining has also been tied to violence and human rights abuses, such as funding the decades old conflict in the Congo and human rights abuses surrounding the Conga mine in Peru.


Towards better mining

Although mining is inherently destructive, it can be less environmentally damaging and more respectful of communities. Earthworks is tackling the issue on many fronts:

1872 Mining Law reform

In the United States mining on hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands is governed by a 19th century law that:

More than 140 years later, we know how to fix the problem.

Regulatory reform

Even without acts of Congress, federal rules that can be improved to better protect communities and the environment:

Community initiatives

Earthworks staff and Bristol Bay native leaders at London Tiffany store, thanking them for their support.
Earthworks staff and Bristol Bay native leaders at London Tiffany store,
thanking them for their support.

Earthworks works on the ground to provide support to communities who face irresponsible mine development.

Some places are simply too precious to mine, like Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. And in fighting to protect the world’s largest wild salmon fishery from the Pebble mine proposal, we raise the profile of the impacts of mining everywhere.

Organized community oppositon can be one our greatest tools in protecting communities and the environment from mining.

No Dirty Gold campaign

The majority of gold demand comes from jewelry. But no one wants to say “I love you” with a necklace made from gold mined by child labor. So jewelry retailers (and other gold consumers like electronics) are in a unique position to pressure the mining industry to improve its behavior.

The No Dirty Gold campaign is about convincing these retailers, and consumers, to exercise their market power to demand more responsibly sourced gold.

Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance

IRMA is an effort to create voluntary, independently certified, multistakeholder mining standards that would raise the social and environmental standards of mine sites around the world.

Akin to FSC–certified lumber, IRMA could provide manufacturers of products using metals the certainty that their products are not tainted with human rights violations and minimize their environmental footprint.

For more information:

Tagged with: no dirty gold, mining, bristol bay, acid mine drainage, 1872 mining law

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