Mining: Waste, Pollution, Destruction from Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted”

[ I’ve reworded/shortened some of the wording at times from this excellent book.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Mountain top removal consists of blasting away entire mountains to get the underlying coal seams or other mineral deposits. Forests, streams, and wildlife are destroyed as well, with the tailings smothering landscapes and waterways.

Coal is just one of the minerals that generates vast amounts of solid waste that must be disposed.

Copper is as well.  We produce 15 million tons of copper a year from ores that are only 0.5% copper, which means 3 billion tons of waste ore – even more than the total mass of concrete produced a year globally.

Now think of all the waste generated by all mining – surely tens of billions of tons of rock.  And as the best ores are used up, the less concentrated ores remain, which produce even more solid waste.

Worse yet, this waste isn’t just piles of rock – chemicals and other reactive substances such as cyanide, and arsenic.

  • Gold mining uses mercury
  • Extraction of uranium uses hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid.
  • Fracked oil and gas are laced with acids, solvents, and other chemicals that can contaminate water sources
  • underground coal fires can smolder for decades sending massive amounts of toxic gases into the air

In the end the products made are “consumed” and destroyed or discarded. Every stage in-between also generates waste: manufacturing leads to industrial waste, consumption of products to urban waste.

Mining products don’t have to be poisonous or reactive to do harm – sheer volume is enough. For example concrete decays and a huge fraction of the world’s land surface – 0.5 to 3% – is covered with roads, parking lots, buildings, commercial centers, and so on. That’s 700,000 to 3,000,000 square kilometers (270270 to 1.16 million square miles).

Furthermore, much of this is built on top of prime farmland, the best soil for growing food. In Holland, 13.2% of their nation is covered in permanent structures, and Belgium 9.8%, mainly on flat areas that could have grown food.

Topping all other waste as a threat to humanity is radioactive waste.  Plutonium is one of the most poisonous substances in existence. It takes so long to decay that even 100,000 years from now, 6% of it will still exist. From an ethical point of view, we are doing future generations a tremendous disservice. We are passing onto them heavy loads of dangerous materials, and it is not at all obvious that they’ll have the scientific and technological tools to deal with the problem, or even that they will be able to recognize that it exists.

Heavy metals are also often toxic, and exist in such huge quantities now that they harm entire ecosystems. Although they may be in landfills, there’s no guarantee that centuries or even sooner they won’t contaminate aquifers and cause other harm, such as the Love Canal landfill in New York which homes were built on top of leading to cancer, nervous disorders, birth defects, and other health problems.

Heavy metals are also being dispersed world-wide as fine particulates and volatile compounds that can be inhaled or eaten, sometimes as a result of incineration, since no filter is 100% efficient. Nano-sized particles are suspected of being the most damaging kind for our health, and enter the air via smokestacks. Incineration gives us the illusion we’ve gotten rid of waste, but may in fact be transforming it into more dangers and difficult compounds that the original ones.

Most of it is probably from industrial combustion though, especially coal burning. Coal has both heavy and radioactive metals that are emitted into the atmosphere as small particles after they’re burned. Heavy metals are also transformed into powders as a result of abrasion, corrosion, and other industrial, unavoidable processes affecting most metallic objects.

And when metals are dispersed this way, their concentrations are so low that they can’t be recovered.

Mercury is one of the most toxic metals known, and so far we’ve produced about 500,000 tons of it.  In addition, coal plants generate 1,500 tons a year roughly, of which probably a few hundred thousand tons have been dispersed into the atmosphere.  Where did the 500,000 tons go?  Perhaps 50,000 tons are still in the industrial system (thermometers, fluorescent lamps, batteries, dental fillings, etc.). Much is landfilled, incinerated, or dumped somewhere.  About 200,000 tons are present in the first 15 centimeters of soil (6 inches). Even more is in the oceans as dispersed powder or soluble compounds.

Mercury has a half-life of 3,000 years, so even if we stopped mercury production it would remain for thousands of years.  Meanwhile we are accumulating it by breathing, drinking, and eating. Since we’re at the top of the food chain, we’re probably the species most at risk from mercury accumulation.

Mercury is a neurotoxin, damaging the nervous system, as well as the liver and more. It continues to be released, but we don’t know how this will affect us.  Some recent studies who that the great Permian extinction 250 million years ago was associated with high levels of mercury resulting from volcanic eruptions.

The 4 most toxic substances are mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium, which are also being released by mining and industry. Chromium-3 is common in the earth’s crust and needed for human metabolism, but when transformed by industry to make chromium plating into chromium-6, it’s highly carcinogenic.

The problems generated by single substances are compounded and amplified by their combinations. We are not exposed to chemicals one at a time and for limited spans of time but in combinations of tens or even hundreds of them, continuously, in our daily lives.  The number of chemical substances registered for industrial uses is 100,00 in the EU and 84,000 in the U.S. We inhale, eat, and artificial chemicals with no idea what they will do to us long-term.


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2 Responses to Mining: Waste, Pollution, Destruction from Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted”

  1. david higham says:

    Just a minor point. You might like to correct the book title in the headline
    to ‘Extracted’. (and delete this comment)

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