Environmental impact of mining on air quality – How can we measure it?

January 31, 2023
Monitoring solutions to reduce the environmental impact of mining on air quality - Kunak

Table of contents

Mining and air pollution go hand in hand.

There is no doubt that mining operations have a visual and landscape impact. However, the environmental impact of mining on air quality is also a factor to be considered, especially when protecting the health of workers and the surrounding communities.

So air quality monitoring for mines and quarries is an essential task, especially when we are talking about an activity that is key for the economy and the energy transition.

And sacrificing air quality for other natural resources is not the best alternative.

 

Types of Mining

Mining is an essential activity for the development of modern society. It provides us with access to natural resources essential for construction, technology and energy. But it is crucial that mining is carried out responsibly, with a focus on sustainability and minimising environmental impact.

There are different mining processes, each adapted to the geological conditions and the types of minerals to be extracted. Each mining method has its advantages and challenges, and the choice depends on factors such as the location of the deposit, the type of ore and environmental considerations. The main types of mining and their characteristics are detailed below:

 

Opencast mining

Environmental impact of mining - Kunak

Opencast mining

Opencast mining involves the extraction of minerals and materials directly from the earth’s surface. It is used in large deposits and covers an area greater than 2000 mining hectares. Common examples include copper porphyries (essentially low-grade, high-tonnage ore deposits) and large gold deposits. Countries such as the United States, China and Russia are leaders in this form of mining. In Latin America, Peru, Chile and Brazil also practice large-scale mining.

 

Underground mines

Environmental impact of mining - Kunak

Underground mines

Underground mining takes place underground, in galleries and tunnels. It is ideal for minerals that cannot be extracted efficiently from the surface. This technique is used for coal deposits, precious metals and industrial minerals. Although it requires more investment and planning, it has less impact on the landscape.

 

Drilling wells

Environmental impact of mining - Kunak

Offshore drilling well

Drill shaft or in-situ mining involves the extraction of minerals directly from the site where they are found. Shafts are drilled to access underground deposits. This method is used in the extraction of oil, gas and minerals such as uranium.

 

Underwater mining

Environmental impact of mining - Kunak

Underwater mining

Underwater mining takes place on the seabed. Valuable minerals such as manganese, nickel and cobalt are extracted. Although it is an emerging technique, it presents environmental and technological challenges. However, its potential is promising for the future.

 

To summarise, mining is a diverse activity that contributes to our daily lives and to technological development. Each type of mining has its place and purpose, and it is essential to carry it out responsibly and sustainably.

 

Causes of mining pollution

Mining pollution is a significant environmental problem arising from activities related to the extraction and processing of minerals. These are some of the main causes of mining pollution:

  • Acid drainage: One of the biggest contributors to mine pollution is acid drainage. It occurs when sulphide minerals, such as pyrite, are exposed to air and water during mining. These minerals react with oxygen and water, releasing sulphuric acid. Acid drainage pollutes water bodies and negatively affects aquatic life.
  • Mining waste: The generation of mining waste, such as tailings and waste rock dumps, is another major cause of pollution. These wastes contain toxic substances and heavy metals that can leach into soil and groundwater. Tailings, in particular, may contain cyanide and other hazardous chemicals.
  • Atmospheric dust and particulates: During blasting, excavation and transport of minerals, fine particles are released into the air. These particles may contain heavy metals and other pollutants. Mining dust can affect air quality and the respiratory health of people living near mines.
  • Alteration of the landscape: Open-pit mining and other extractive techniques drastically alter the natural landscape. The removal of vegetation, excavation and the creation of large cavities negatively affect the biodiversity and scenic beauty of the environment.
  • Water pollution: Chemicals used in mining, such as flotation reagents and solvents, can leach into surrounding waters. This causes water pollution, affecting water quality and aquatic life.
  • Social and economic impacts: In addition to environmental effects, mining also has social and economic consequences. Conflicts with other land uses, loss of cultural heritage and economic inequalities are some of the problems associated with mining.

 

In short, the environmental impact of mining is a complex concern that requires responsible and sustainable management of mining activities.

How does mining affect the air?

Mining can have a significant impact on air quality due to emissions of dust and gaseous pollutants. Debate is common on how to measure and reduce this environmental impact.

Key points:

  • Emissions monitoring: it is essential to monitor and analyse emissions to better understand their impact, their origins, their levels, etc.
  • Solutions: there are multiple solutions to minimise the environmental impact of mining on air quality such as dust suppression systems, irrigation to reduce particle dispersion or filtration technologies and electrostatic precipitators, among others.
  • Regulations: Stricter environmental regulations and enforcement are essential to limit emissions from resource extraction.
  • Innovation: developing new extraction systems and continuous improvement of existing ones are necessary to address the challenges related to mining and air quality.

These measures can help to significantly reduce the negative impact of mining activities on the environment.

 

Most affected areas by mining

Mining can affect several areas significantly, especially in environmental and social terms. These are some of the areas most affected by mining:

  • Mining camps: Mining affects miners’ camps mainly through health problems arising from poor air quality, water pollution and environmental contamination.
  • Forest and jungle regions: Mining often involves the deforestation of large areas of forest and jungle to access mineral resources. This can have a devastating impact on biodiversity and local ecosystems.
  • Coastal and marine areas: Marine mining, such as the extraction of sand, gravel and minerals from the seabed, can cause serious damage to marine and coastal habitats and the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.
  • Indigenous areas and local communities: Many indigenous and local communities live in areas rich in mineral resources. Mining can displace these communities, destroy their traditional livelihoods and pollute their land and water resources.
  • Arctic and Antarctic regions: Mining in these fragile areas can have particularly severe environmental impacts due to the sensitivity of Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems and the difficulty of cleaning up oil spills and other disasters.
  • Watersheds: Mining can contaminate nearby water bodies with toxic chemicals used in the mining process, such as cyanide and mercury, affecting water quality and aquatic life.

It is important to note that the impacts of mining vary according to the type of mineral extracted, the extraction practices used, and the environmental and social regulations in place in each country. However, in general, mining can have significant and often negative effects on the areas where it is carried out.

 

Mining emissions: unseen, but felt

Mining is considered one of the main sources of pollution in the world.

Indeed, issues such as the handling of toxic metals in artisanal mining or the waste generated by mining activities play a major role in this ranking.

However, the environmental impact of mining on air quality also contributes to this questionable position, so it seems appropriate to look at the main emissions sources.

 

Mineral extraction: Not only suspended particulate matter are released

However, before describing them, it is necessary to delimit the field in which we are going to move.

Our solutions for air quality monitoring in mines and quarries are valid for both underground shafts and opencast operations. But it is precisely in the latter where we have accumulated most of our experience and where we have had repeated opportunities to successfully validate our technology.

So let’s consider the main sources of pollutant emissions. A rough classification could be as follows (1):

  • Mobile sources include machines and motor vehicles operating in the mine or quarry. Emissions depend on the fuel (in this sense, there are some pilot projects for the incorporation of electric vehicles) and their maintenance conditions.
  • Stationary sources include, for example, power generation facilities.
  • Fugitive emissions include re-suspension of dust resulting from traffic, storage and transportation processes, road construction, etc.

 

The resulting pollutants are

  • particulate matter (total suspended particulate matter – TSP-, PM10, PM2.5, etc.);
  • gaseous emissions such as CO2, CO, NO2 or SO2;
  • aerosols (usually originating from hydrometallurgical processes); and
  • noise and vibrations.

 

How to reduce the environmental impact of mining on air quality?

Monitoring is a task that minimises the environmental impact of mining on air quality by making it possible to take the most appropriate actions. After all, you cannot manage what you do not measure. And in the face of uncertainty, the best option is to rely on indisputable data such as that recorded by our stations.

What do we achieve by deploying Kunak AIR stations in opencast mining?

  • Ensuring the health and safety of workers and nearby inhabited areas.
  • Reduce environmental impacts on the surrounding ecosystems, both in terms of noise pollution and solid and gaseous emissions.
  • Comply with the environmental laws in force in each country.
  • Improving efficiency by identifying emission sources related to machines that may require maintenance.
  • Strengthen the public image and reputation of the mining company.

 

How do we perform our work?

The best way to show you the benefits of our technology is through the success stories you can find on our website. Among them, you will find

 

Environmental impact of mining - Kunak

Environmental monitoring using Kunak AIR Pro stations at First Quantum Minerals’ Cobre Panama copper mine

 

In this project, a network of solar-powered Kunak AIR Pro stations equipped with wind measurement probes was deployed.

The network provides continuous, real-time dust and particulate matter concentration data, enabling the identification of critical operations that can be planned according to weather conditions.

These success stories serve to demonstrate that our range of air quality measurement products does the job, providing solutions and certainty.

Want to find out how our solutions can help you? Contact us.

 

Smart mining also has to consider air quality

The energy transition has led to a revival of the mining sector. After all, its operation provides us with the resources needed to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines or batteries for electric cars.

However, this revival should be accompanied by a more ambitious environmental strategy that includes, among others, the protection of the atmosphere.

In the coming years, we will witness the development of what is already known as “smart mining“, with a progressive digitalisation of mineral extraction operations. And environmental protection should not be left out of this trend.

After all, there are few things smarter than taking care of this planet we share, don’t you think? 🤔

 

Consulted sources

(1) Cantos Zambrano, J.E. (2019). Incidencia ambiental de actividades mineras por emisiones a la atmósfera: El caso de Manabí (Ecuador). (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). University of Seville, Seville. Available at https://hdl.handle.net/11441/100200

Milagros Eva Huancare Medina An Analysis of the Environmental Impact Statement in Mining Projects La Damira Ciencia Latina Revista Científica Multidisciplinar

D. Noriega, Andrea Mariana Mining regulation, social conflict and the environment in Peru: applying regulatory impact assessment to find alternatives

María Paula Urrego Barragan, Jesús David Licona Enríquez, Karen Charlot Santisteban Muriel Mining locomotive in Colombia consequences of poor institutional coordination in the department of Boyaca – period 2010 to 2014