Mining is well known to be an environmentally harmful practice, but despite this fact, it’s still a hugely profitable business across the globe. The Canadian mining industry is one of the largest in the world – it’s currently the leading producer of potash globally, but also trades in other precious metals and minerals, like aluminium, titanium and gold.

Most nations are becoming more committed to mining sustainable and ethically, as they employ innovative practices, and Canada is no exception, according to a recently released guide, The Importance of Socially Responsible Mining in Developing Nations.

However, the guide also examines how the devastating effects of past practices are still lingering, and when it comes to entirely eliminating the impact of mining on the environment, every mining nation still has a long way to go.

The question is, where exactly are we seeing the harmful effects of mining in Canada, and what is it that we need to change in order to do better? Let’s look at the environmental impact of the Canadian mining industry on pollution levels, local habitats, and global greenhouse gas emissions.

Pollution

Mines are required to monitor and regulate the chemicals that they release into the air, but that doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to global pollution levels. While the monitoring of harmful gases in mines ensures a certain level of safety for workers, there’s still risk, and potential harm to local communities and wildlife who can suffer from ill health as a result.

Similarly, waste from mines can make it into local waters, polluting them and devastating habitats below the surface. Often, these will be dangerous chemical and heavy metal contaminants that poison both aquatic life and land animals, as well as human communities who rely on the local sources of water. The issue has gotten so bad that Canadian mining sites are likely to require wastewater treatment for the next 200 to 400 years.

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Habitat destruction

Mining activities usually require the removal of soil and vegetation, which can result in the destruction of animal and plant habitats and a loss of biodiversity. Of all the metals and minerals that are mined, only a portion of them actually make it onto the market – the rest are essentially collateral damage, left to sit on the surface and interfere with plant and animal life. Animals are left susceptible to ingesting these harmful materials, which has been shown to result in genetic mutations in their offspring.

Additionally, loud noises from explosives and the running of heavy machinery can disrupt the behaviours of the local wildlife – for example, their breeding patterns – which ultimately leads to a further decline in the functioning of their ecosystems.

Global warming

Mining practices not only impact life in the immediate vicinity – they are contributing to climate change on a global scale. In fact, the mining industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide today. As recently as 2021, Canada alone produced emissions equivalent to 670 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, a significant portion of which was attributed to oil mining activities.

It’s not only what goes on at mining sites that releases harmful levels of CO2. Once a product has been mined, it’s processed and shipped across the globe, resulting in additional harmful manufacturing and transport emissions.

Mining for solutions

From plant life to aquatic creatures, land animals and humans, we’re all connected – and we all rely on a clean, safe environment to survive and thrive. The mining industry goes against everything that we need as living beings. So, what can be done to limit these harmful effects?

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Luckily, many of Canada’s mining companies are actively seeking ways to become more eco-friendly, and some have already engaged with positive environmental projects. While the work that has been undertaken so far is largely focused around reducing emissions elsewhere, away from the mines, change is on the horizon.

For negative environmental impacts to truly cease, real change needs to be seen in the mining processes themselves. This could involve reducing and reusing waste, conserving water, and restoring land that has previously been mined, to give ecosystems a chance to flourish once again.

The truth is, there are a number of positives to the mining industry, such as work opportunities and larger scale economic development for local communities. However, it’s clear that humans are the only ones reaping any kind of reward from mining practices, so for them to fairly continue, we need to be able to protect plant and animal species too. By continuing to innovate mining processes and developing alternatives to fossil fuels and other limited resources, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions considerably, and potentially see a brighter future for all life on Earth.

Anne Walton is a consultant and researcher for Digital Content & Media.

Featured image credit: Shane McLendon / Unsplash. 

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