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Environmental Impacts of Mining

Mining has environmental costs, but mined land may be reclaimed.

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Environmental Impacts of Mining

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Many of the things we want come partly from minerals. But making minerals useful often causes environmental damage.

Mining and the Environment

Although mining provides people with many needed resources, the environmental costs can be high. Surface mining clears the landscape of trees and soil, and nearby streams and lakes are inundated with sediment. Pollutants from the mined rock, such as heavy metals, enter the sediment and water system. Acids flow from some mine sites, changing the composition of nearby waterways (Figure below).

Missouri stream receiving acid drainage from surface coal mining

Acid drainage from a surface coal mine in Missouri.

U.S. law has changed in recent decades so that a mine region must be restored to its natural state, a process called reclamation. This is not true of older mines. Pits may be refilled or reshaped and vegetation planted. Pits may be allowed to fill with water and become lakes or may be turned into landfills. Underground mines may be sealed off or left open as homes for bats.


  • Surface mining clears the land, completely destroying the ecosystems that were found there.
  • Mining releases pollutants, which affect the immediate area and may travel downstream or downwind to cause problems elsewhere.
  • Reclamation occurs when people attempt to return the mined land to its original state.


  1. What damage may be caused by mining?
  2. Why is sediment considered a problem in mined areas?
  3. If lands altered by mining in recent decades must be reclaimed, what happens to lands that were mined prior to that law?

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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. How was coal traditional mined in West Virginia?
  2. What is mountaintop removal mining?
  3. What is the first step after the site has been identified?
  4. What role do geologists play?
  5. How does the rock get broken?
  6. What is done with the broken rock?
  7. What is the ratio of coal to rock removed?
  8. What is the advantage of mountaintop removal for miners?
  9. What is the environmental cost?

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reclamation Restoring an altered property, such as one that has been mined, to its previous state.

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