Mining the Earth

John E. Young, Worldwatch Institute



Mining ranks among the world's most destructive industries. Each year, mining strips some 28 billion tons of material from the earth--more than is moved by the natural erosion of all the earth's rivers. Worldwide, mining and smelting generate an estimated 2.7 billion tons of processing waste each year, much of it hazardous--dwarfing the quantity of the more familiar municipal waste. And smelting pumps an estimated 6 million tons of sulfur dioxide, a major contributor to acid rain, into the atmosphere each year.

Yet minerals extraction and processing are conspicuous only by their absence in most discussions of global environmental threats. Governmental and private analyses have focused only on increasing minerals supply.

While the world appears in little danger of running out of most non-fuel minerals, can the planet afford the human and ecological price of its growing appetite for minerals? Human needs might be satisfied with smaller inputs of virgin materials.

The study's recommendations include eliminating subsidies governments provide for mining virgin minerals, tightening environmental standards for mines and smelters, increasing the recycling of materials, and making metals-based products more durable and easier to repair.

MINING THE EARTH documents many examples of the environmental devastation caused by mineral production:

  • Smelter pollution has created biological wastelands as large as 10,000 hectares and added some 8 percent of total worldwide emissions of sulfur dioxide, a primary contributor to acid rain.
  • The United States' largest Superfund site, stretching 220 kilometers in Montana, and at least 47 other superfund sites are former minerals operations.
  • Smelters at a single iron mine in Brazil will require enough fuelwood to deforest 50,000 hectares of tropical forest each year; the mine is expected to operate for 250 years.

Many governments subsidize mineral production, while few enact or enforce strict environmental regulations for mining operations. As a result, not only are many mining operations more environmentally destructive than need be, but the prices of minerals do not include their full environmental cost, the study finds.

Today's low mineral prices reflect only the immediate economics of extraction and distribution. They fail to consider the full costs of denuded forests, eroded land, dammed or polluted rivers, and the uprooting or decimation of indigenous peoples unlucky enough to live atop mineral deposits. The United States government, for instance, gave the U.S. mining industry up to $5 billion in tax subsidies over the last decade alone.

Congress is currently considering major changes to the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which permits miners to buy federal land for $12 per hectare or less. Proposed legislation--S. 433 and the Rahall substitute for H.R. 918--would stop land giveaways, levy a royalty on gold, silver, and other hard-rock minerals, and toughen environmental standards.

Mining has been poorly regulated even in wealthy industrialized countries. But its impacts are particularly severe in developing nations, which produce a large and growing share of the world's mineral supplies, although they use relatively little.

Since many industrial countries used up much of their own mineral endowments years ago, the minerals industry has been moving to developing countries, where environmental controls tend to be weak or nonexistent. Copper smelters in Chile, for instance, emit 12.5 times the amount of sulfur dioxide as those in the U.S.

Contrary to popular belief, the people of most minerals- exporting developing countries have gained little from mining and remain among the world's most impoverished. Expensive investments in infrastructure combined with falling world minerals prices during the eighties helped make minerals-dependent countries some of the world's most heavily indebted.

In Zambia, for example, copper provides 86 percent of export revenue. The price of copper plummeted in the early eighties; as of 1989, Zambia's debt was 1.4 times its GNP. By comparison, the average ratio of debt to GNP among the nations the World Bank classifies as severely indebted is 0.6.

The Paper argues for reduced emphasis on minerals projects in development plans, and increased attention to grassroots-oriented rural development, agriculture, education, health care, and other basic human needs.

Since the industrial nations consume most minerals, they have a responsibility to help clean up the damage in developing nations and ensure that new destruction be minimized. The paper proposes taxing minerals extraction rather than subsidizing it, and using revenue from those taxes to clean up mining sites in both industrialized and developing countries.

The study also proposes strengthening environmental standards and implementing cleaner production technologies in the mining and smelting industries. Yet in the long run, regulation will not be enough. Curbing mining's environmental destruction will require profound changes in both minerals use and in the global economy. No country has yet developed and put into place comprehensive policies on the use of minerals and other raw materials. The de facto materials policies of industrial nations have always been to champion the production of virgin minerals.

A far less destructive policy would use tax policy and other measures to maximize conservation of mineral stocks already circulating in the global economy. Such a strategy would reduce both the demand for new materials and the environmental damage done to produce them. The industrialized world, its infrastructure largely built, needs minerals mostly for maintenance and replacement and is therefore well placed to slow its consumption of virgin materials. Recent positive signs include moves in Germany toward making industries responsible for the fate of their products. Several European automobile manufacturers are planning to produce cars with an eye toward easy recycling of parts.

Mining's devastating environmental effects make the ultimate case for a global environmental strategy emphasizing pollution prevention. As an inherently destructive industry that supplies raw materials throughout the economy, its impacts will best be reduced by basic changes in other industries, and in the societies that eventually use mineral products.

"Mining the Earth", published in 1992, is available for $5 ($4 for 2-5 copies; $3 for 6-20 copies; $2 for 21+ copies) plus $3.00 shipping and handling per order from Worldwatch

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