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