Photo: Roland Brockmann/MISEREOR

Water pollution

Mining activities are typically highly water-intensive and require powerful cleaning systems to manage the large number of chemicals that are used. Mining applications in many places have transformed wide rivers into small streams. Chemicals make lakes entirely change colour. Informal extraction causes severe water pollution because treatment of toxic chemicals is entirely unregulated. Many mines also release toxic particulate matter into the air that end up in watercourses.

Some examples

  • Norilsk in Russia is currently considered one of the most contaminated places on Earth due to its large nickel industry. It has polluted air and land with sulphur oxide, caused acid rain, and released heavy metals into the water supply. Russian nickel factories are also responsible for mercury pollution in the Arctic. All such facilities have resulted in severe health risks.
  • The extraction of lithium in Bolivia’s already water-scarce salt plains has contaminated water used by the local population for drinking and agriculture. Many households have become reliant upon the drinking water that is now delivered to the area in tanker trucks. The area is believed to have some 70 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves and is vulnerable to considerable threat as demand for lithium continues to grow. Lithium is used in batteries for smartphones and electric vehicles.
  • Three thousand litres of sulphuric acid leaked into the sea from a copper mine in north west Mexico in July 2019. Researchers warned that marine plant life, fish and the entire ecosystem in the area would be hit. The company operating the mine was already under investigation for 22 other incidents involving environmental impact in the past decade. Environmentalists are now calling for the withdrawal of the mining company’s licence.
  • Four years after the catastrophic mining accident at Minas Gerais in Brazil, when a dam burst releasing mud containing poisonous mine waste, the water in the Doce river is still unfit for use at 90 per cent of the points where measurements are taken. The river was poisoned by heavy metals and chemicals resulting in the death of all fish contained in it. The river, which supplied more than 200 towns, was destroyed and 280,000 people were left without access to clean water. Brazil’s environment minister has described the release of the poisonous waste as the country’s worst ever environmental catastrophe.

Water-use in mineral extraction

Water is used throughout the process of extracting minerals. Different types of minerals require different amounts of water.

Source: Pollution to Water

  • Cyanide emissions pollute groundwater around gold mine in Argentina

    Three accidents resulting in the release of a cyanide solution in an 18-month period at the Veladero mine in Argentina. Veladero is one of the country’s largest gold mines and is owned by Canadian mining group Barrick Gold in a joint venture with China’s Shangdong Gold. In the first incident, faulty pipes leaked a million litres of a cyanide solution resulting in the destruction of five different rivers. Local authorities warned inhabitants of three towns close to the mine to avoid drinking water from the nearby river Blanco due to the pollution. The mine was shut down for a month and the company made to pay a fine of USD 9 million. A court later ruled that the third accident could have been avoided if the company had replaced the faulty piping.

    In addition to water pollution, the mine is blamed for the depletion of water resources and is believed to accelerate the melting of glaciers due to dust clouds generated during refraction. Local inhabitants have protested about the mine for 17 years and demand its complete closure. They argue that the high levels of heavy metals that the mine has released have severely damaged their health, agricultural land, and livestock.

    Water pollution caused by mining in Congo Kinshasa. Photo: Roland Brockmann/MISEREOR

Impact on ecosystems

Mining – particularly surface mining and mountain removal mining – frequently causes long-term and sometimes irreversible impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. Erosion and destruction of coral reefs and mango swamps are common. Surface mining also destroys large areas of land. When mines are decommissioned, large holes in the ground remain, and spills involving heavy metals, acids, and toxic chemicals can continue for many years after mining operations have ceased.

Some examples

  • At the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia, the company that operates the mine has re-routed the Arroyo river in a specially dug 3.6km long channel to access coal reserves on the river bed. Villagers in the area claimed that this would cause severe damage to the delicate ecosystem and biodiversity around the river. This would impact pasture used for livestock, fish in the river and water access for a large number of villages. A court ruled that roundtable talks should be held to decide whether the river should be returned to its original position. The mining company has been accused of failing to follow the court’s ruling when representatives from the affected villages were not invited to participate in talks that resulted in the company deciding not to return the river to its original course.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth metals that are used in many products such as smartphones, TV screens and engines for electric vehicles. Extraction of these metals requires extensive use of chemicals and generates large amounts of toxic and radioactive waste. Outside the industrial city of Baotou in Mongolia, an enormous toxic lake has formed by mining waste being dumped there over many years. The area, which used to be arable farmland, has been destroyed and the waste has poisoned the groundwater and surrounding land. Farmers have been robbed of their livelihoods as harvests and livestock have been affected and have been forced to move away.

Jazmin Romero on the bank of the river Arroyo in Colombia. Villagers protested against the mining company Cerrejón’s plans to re-route the river. Photo: Javier De la Cuadra

  • The Philippines’ worst mining disaster

    Twenty years after a mining accident in which a dam burst on the island of Marinduque in the Philippines, the affected area is still yet to recover. Three to four million tonnes of toxic mine waste from copper extraction was released into a river system causing fish and shellfish in the Boac river to die, as did livestock that drank the water. Marine ecosystems disappeared, as mangroves, seaweed and coral were destroyed and trees along the river died. Following the disaster, villagers were forced to travel many kilometres to collect water.

    In the wake of the accident, the government ordered the closure of the mine. Mining company Marcopper was accused of simply stopping operations and abandoning the mine. The company has failed to take responsibility for compensating those affected by the disaster or for rehabilitating the areas that have been destroyed.

    “The damage caused by the mining disaster at Marcopper were enormous,” Imelda Diaz, regional environment and natural resources official on Marinduque tells Business Mirror. “It wasn’t just the trees that were destroyed – it was the entire ecosystem. Even the coast and the marine ecosystem was destroyed. The damage caused by the spill are well documented.”

Destruction of the rainforests

The world’s rainforests are home to around 50 per cent of all land animals and plants. They are also important to mitigate climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and binds it (they function as so-called carbon sinks). Mining, illegal and unsustainable logging, the conversion of forest into agricultural land and large-scale animal husbandry are some of the causes of the destruction of tropical rainforest. Seventeen per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in the past 50 years.

Area in hectares that has been felled annually 2010-15

Source: FAO, 2016

Some examples

  • The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro wants to clear large tracts of the Amazon rainforest for soya production, start mining and increase meat production. This would have devastating consequences for local and indigenous populations who depend on the rainforest for their survival, the rich animal life and the earth’s climate. Since Bolsonaro became president, an area of forest larger than Gotland has been felled while at the same time protection for the forest has been weakened. Fires in the Amazon in August 2019 have made the situation acute.
  • Peru’s rainforest is the fourth largest in the world and is one of the richest in terms of biological diversity. The forests are home to more than 3.5 million people, among them 60 different indigenous people. But illegal logging is widespread and represents a major threat to the forests. A report by Global Witness suggests that the country’s largest sawmill processes timber illegally and that forestry companies exploit corrupt authorities to falsify documentation about where timber originates from.
  • Global Witness claims that European companies illegally import timber from Congo Kinshasa. In 2018, 10 companies were reported to have sold illegally sourced timber valued at around 2 million euro. Trees are felled and timber sold by the country’s second largest timber exporter. Illegal and unsustainable felling is one of the main threats facing the forests, which are the world’s second largest rainforest and that provide millions of people with food, water and their livelihood. The biological diversity of these forests is enormous with thousands of plant and animal species.
  • Severe risks for forestry companies in Cameroon

    Tropical forestry is a high-risk sector because logging typically affects individual forests as well as the rights and livelihoods of local and indigenous people in nearby areas. Swedwatch has investigated the effects of activities of logging companies in Cameroon. Forest clearance to make way for rubber plantations of Asian and domestic companies have resulted in villagers being driven from their homes and human rights being abused. Logging conducted by a Dutch and a French company to produce timber affected villagers’ access to water and opportunities to hunt and conduct small-scale farming. Representatives of indigenous people claimed that their ability to support themselves from the forest’s resources had worsened. Logging companies operating in tropical countries are encouraged to carry out risk- and impact analyses in terms of human rights and environmental impact (so-called due diligence). Companies that buy tropical timber are called on to ensure that their suppliers have carried out such analyses.

    The local population claims that a key reason for the reduction of animal life are the roads that the logging companies have built that cut through the forest. “Now, poachers can drive into the forest on the new roads without being seen, and they hire local hunters and give them weapons to hunt the wild animals,” a villager tells Swedwatch.

    The indigenous Baka in Cameroon depend on hunting and gathering plants and other products from the woods for their survival. Logging and large-scale agricultural plantations now encroach on their areas. Photo: Swedwatch