How does mining impact the environment? Trust us: it’s not pretty. Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but their mining practices certainly aren’t.
In 2021, the diamond mining industry used 126 gallons of water per carat of diamond…that adds up! This is especially considering that in 2021 nations worldwide will also face severe droughts and food shortages due to dwindling water supplies. Mining can seriously impact the state of human health.
And that’s just diamonds alone. When you add in all of the different gemstones and precious metals, it is easy to see how the many negative environmental impacts of mining can snowball into disasters over time.
How Are Precious Gems and Metals Mined?
Mining is a process of digging for precious gemstones and metals. The mining process consists of three different methods: surface mining, underground mining, and deep-sea mining. Although all three mining operations are different, they are equally harmful to the environment. To make things easy, we’ve broken down each mining method below.
Surface mining is a form of mining that removes the soil and the rock covering the mineral deposits. Mining companies leave the overlying rock behind.
This type of mining makes sense when commercially viable mineral deposits lie closer to the surface; that is, where the overburden (surface material covering the desired deposit) is thin. Additionally, this type of mining is used when the material of interest is structurally unsuitable for tunneling (as would be the case for sand, cinder, and gravel).
In most forms of surface mining, heavy equipment, such as earthmovers, first remove the overburden. Next, huge machines extract the mineral, such as dragline excavators or bucket wheel excavators, leaving the waste rock piles behind.
Open Pit Mining
Open-pit mining is the most common form of surface mining, and it’s pretty much exactly as it sounds. Mining companies create one big open pit, sometimes called a quarry. They do this by blasting the earth with explosives and using complex drilling tools.
High Wall Mining
High wall mining combines the depth of open-pit mining operations with underground mining techniques. Essentially, dropping into an open pit and then horizontally drilling into the sides of said pit.
Like open pit mining, dredging mining is also pretty self-explanatory. Essentially, mining companies dredge ocean and lake bottoms for precious metals.
Mining companies ‘strip’ the earth of overburden (the outer earth layer) and redeposit it onto a previous shallow strip, creating congruent, side-by-side strips to mine.
When people typically think about what mining sites look like, they usually think of underground mining operations. In underground mining, extracting ore creates openings. Then, shafts equipped with elevators safely carry miners down to the site. Finally, explosives and drills continue to excavate materials.
Room-and-pillar mining is the most common form of underground mining. Here, miners create a checkerboard of rooms and pillars. This system supports the overlying rock of the room. Then, it’s easy to extract the materials.
A less common method is called the longwall mining method. This method creates rooms divided into rectangular panels. Moveable hydraulic supports create a canopy. Then, a cutting machine moves back and forth under the canopy, mining the materials.
Mining operations have been pretty self-explanatory so far, so you can probably guess that deep-sea mining is, in fact, the mining of materials in the deep sea, considered anything below 200 meters. The deep-sea floor is combed over and scraped to find precious metals like dredging.
How Do Mining Methods Affect the Environment?
While mining can prove incredibly lucrative to corporations, it comes at a massive human and environmental cost. These are just some of the environmental health problems to keep in mind.
The vast array of trees, vegetation, plant growth, animals, and birds that make up our world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Deforestation contributes to global warming, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and desertification.
The mining industry is estimated to have caused a loss of approximately 12 million forest hectares in 2020 in the Tropics alone. The resulting carbon emissions are equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars, contributing to ongoing global warming that continues to devastate local communities and human health.
Because deforestation destroys more and more natural habitats, many animals struggle to survive. This results in a skewed food chain with consequences all the way to your very plate.
Acid mine drainage occurs when leftover mine material reacts with oxygen in the air, creating an acidic compound called sulfuric acid. This acid mine drainage can leech into and contaminate nearby water sources, making them undrinkable to both humans and animals. Acid mine drainage also affects soil quality, reducing crop yields and making it harder for farmers to grow food.
Acid mine drainage has been a problem since the beginning of the industrial age. Still, sulfuric acid remains a massive issue in areas where mining and mining waste has been historically common.
Depletion of Ground and Surface Water Sources
Ground and surface water sources are depleting at an alarming rate due to mining. This resulted in the loss of over one trillion gallons of clean water last year. This has impacted the environment and the people who depend on these sources for their daily living.
Let’s take a look at how this affects our environment and our economy. Farmers use groundwater sources to irrigate their crops, while surface water sources provide drinking water for large cities across America.
When groundwater or surface water becomes contaminated from mining (like the acid mine drainage mentioned above), it can cause health problems for animals that drink from these sources. In addition, if humans consume contaminated food or drink milk from cows who drink the same source, then this could lead to severe illnesses such as cancer and congenital disabilities.
The mining industry has a long history of using toxic chemicals to aid in the extraction of gold ore. Most people know that mercury was used in the past for this purpose. However, many don’t know about the other heavy metals and substances still in use.
These substances are highly toxic and leach into the groundwater and soil due to mining waste, causing damage to ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. Many such substances contaminate as a result of mining operations. These substances collect in water and then leach into the groundwater, where they poison local flora and fauna. The damage caused by these chemicals is irreversible; once an ecosystem loses its biodiversity due to these substances, it will never recover.
Harmful Mining Dust Particles
Dust is one of the most harmful environmental polluting agents for human health. Mining creates a lot of dust. Delicate particle matter (pm) is especially problematic from around 2.7 pm to 10.30 pm. Fine PM is more severe due to its pulmonary effects, which may cause lung irritation. Dust also impacts visibility during the time of intense smog accumulation.
In addition to increasing the risk of lung cancer and asthma in people, dust particles can affect plant life as well, decreasing crop yields and causing leaf disease in plants. To combat these issues, companies must take measures to reduce dust at their mines by using protective gear such as masks and respirators when working in dusty areas or by creating a comprehensive dust control plan for their business.
Occupational Health Hazards
As if the harm to delicate environmental systems and toxic waste wasn’t enough. In that case, there are also significant and risky health hazards lurking on any mining site that place its workers at risk. Harmful dust from heavy metals releases air pollution. Thus, miners are at an increased risk for heart and lung disease. This is dangerous not only for the miners but also for the local population and mining communities. (As mentioned above.) Additionally, an unsafe mine site could easily cave in due to hazardous mining processes resulting in dismemberment in death. No gem or precious metal is worth a life!
Can the Environmental Impacts of Mining Decrease?
Absolutely! The environmental impacts of mining can decrease in several ways. The Environmental Protection Agency is committed to helping both individual industrial operations and cities reduce the adverse effects of mining.
To lessen the impact on the environment in terms of carbon emissions, Environmental Protection Agency recommends cities and industrial operations work together to use cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas or renewable energy. Additionally, they recommend creating an inventory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This also includes having a plan in place to reduce those emissions. There are even programs available through the EPA that will assist you with creating an inventory and a management plan.
Another way that mining’s impact on the environment can shrink is by restoring previously mined areas. Here, the focus is on returning the excavated area to its ecological state.
How Consumers Can Make a Difference
The saying goes, “Put your money where your mouth is.” The number one way consumers can help is by not supporting mining practices. Customers can do this by purchasing diamonds that have been ethically created in a lab.
How does this help?
Lab-made diamonds offer consumers an alternative way to enjoy beautiful, sparkling gemstones while avoiding human and environmental exploitation. What makes these diamonds different from mined ones? They are made in laboratories under controlled conditions rather than dug up from the earth. These stones have no ethical or environmental concerns—just pure beauty.
Are Lab-Created Diamonds Any Different Than Natural?
The only difference between lab-created diamonds and naturally occurring diamonds is the use of destructive mining processes. These processes mine heavy metals and diamonds in natural diamonds.
Conversely, lab-created diamonds are formed in labs by applying High-Pressure HIg-Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD). You can learn more about how diamonds are created in a lab here!
Need more proof?
Our-lab grown diamonds are certified and graded through the same process as natural diamonds. They’re also evaluated using the industry-standard 4Cs (Color, Cut, Clarity, and Carat).
Added Perks of Lab-Created Diamonds
Clean Origin’s premium lab-created diamonds are not just as sparkly as naturally mined diamonds. They’re also more affordable. They are 20-40% less expensive than traditionally mined diamonds. This allows you to purchase higher quality and larger diamonds for your buck! Want to learn more? Check out our diamonds now!