Dear EarthTalk: Several tragic accidents recently brought to light the lethal dangers of mines to mine workers. What are the environmental issues with mining, including their long-term impact on both public and mine workers’ health?
—Albert Kelley, Albuquerque, NM
Mining is an inherently nasty practice when looked at from either environmental or health standpoints. For starters, large-scale excavation, which disrupts topsoil and displaces wild flora and fauna, is often needed to get at relatively small amounts of ore. And the leftover waste or “runoff” often contains toxins like mercury and sodium cyanide that can contaminate local water sources. The smelting that processes the ore can cause sulfurous dust clouds that lead to acid rain. And to add insult to injury, abandoned mines are often later used as unregulated landfills for hazardous wastes.
Examples of environmental mining disasters abound. One of the most well known happened in Martin County, Kentucky in 2000, where 250 million gallons of toxic chemical- and metal-containing liquid waste burst through a coal waste dam. That accident killed 1.6 million fish and contaminated drinking water for 27,000 people. Jack Spadaro, who oversees area enforcement for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), didn’t put local residents at ease when he told reporters at the time that 200 other locations in the region could do the same at any moment.
The West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch works to prevent disasters of such magnitude by lobbying lawmakers to pass reforms, urging enforcement officials to increase their vigilance and educating the public about the risks in their own backyards. The non-profit group focuses its efforts primarily on “mountaintop removal” mining operations, which blast off the tops of mountain peaks to get at underlying coal deposits. The vegetation and forest loss that results from such operations increases flooding and landslides, and the waste byproducts poison local water sources.
In the United States, Congress has tried to clean up the mining industry through passage of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 and then the Superfund law in 1986 (requiring cleanup of toxic sites, including mines, after they have been abandoned), but enforcement of these laws has been spotty at best.
Mining remains fundamentally dangerous to mine workers as well, separate from the risks of accidental death. Mine workers are often exposed to unhealthy levels of irritants such as asbestos, uranium and even diesel exhaust from heavy machinery. Emphysema and cardiovascular problems are common among miners, and cancer rates are higher than average as well.
Despite highly publicized episodes like the tragic explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia this past January, MSHA claims that mining has gotten safer for workers in recent years. While 22 workers lost their lives as a result of accidents at mines in the U.S. last year, they say, that figure represents a 50 percent reduction from a decade earlier. Nonetheless, the specter of death looms large over the mining industry, and many workers are scurrying to find jobs in other fields.