Mine with contaminated mining water.

Mine with contaminated mining water.

Photo: Pontus Westrin, SGU.

Mines and environmental impact

Mining activities typically impact the surrounding environment. The extent to which a given environmental impact is deemed tolerable is governed by laws which aim to protect nature, ecosystems and humans. Environmental impacts vary from one mining operation to another, depending primarily on the materials being mined, and how mining waste are managed.

Mining is defined as an environmentally hazardous activity according to Swedish laws. Environmental impacts of mines occur in different ways, primarily via the discharge into surrounding underground water or streams and lakes at the surface of runoff water from the mine and water used in mineral processing which will be charged with mined metals and other elements. In addition, noise, vibration, and dust can generate a nuisance for nearby residents. Land use and changes in landscape are some of the most obvious effects in mining operations. The significance of environmental impact of mining depends upon several factors, amongst others the most important ones include the type of material being mined and mine waste management. Other factors may include topography, climate, geology along with how sensitive are surrounding lakes, streams, and groundwater, typically referred to as "recipients".

Several permits are needed to start mining operations. Normally, exploration is done over an extended period, often several years, under an exploration permit issued by Bergsstaten, the Mining Inspectorate of Sweden. If a mining operator discover an ore deposit (i.e. deposit of minerals that is financially viable to mine) during exploration work, then they may apply for a mining concession permit. However, prior to begin mining operations, an environmental permit needs to be obtained. Other additional permits may also be required, such as permits to operate motor vehicles off-road.

The environmental permit regulates how mining operations may affect the environment, for example which concentration of metals or other elements may be discharged in the environment by the operations or what noise and vibration levels may be acceptable. The company is responsible for ensuring that the operation is compliant to terms and conditions of the permit and that no unacceptable harm is done to the environment. A supervisory authority is nominated to oversee mining activities. The county administrative board is often the supervisory authority.

The most common and significant environmental impact are discharges to soil and watercourses

Often the most significant environmental impact from mining activities are discharges of metals and other elements to soil as well as surface and ground water. The impact of discharges differs from element to element. For example, certain elements are essential to sustain life in low concentration, such as zinc (8-11mg/day for adults and 2-3 for infants), however in high concentration zinc can be dangerous in short term or long term. Other elements, such as cadmium, have no biological function and can be very harmful even in small concentrations. The amount of metals and other substances that a mining operation may discharge is regulated by the environmental permit. The mining operator must ensure that they comply with the environmental permit and the supervisory authority follows up the compliance. Follow-ups can also be made on how elements and substances affect fish stocks, for example. If deemed necessary, environmental requirements can be made more stringent.

If mining operation violates one of the regulations, this is reported to the supervisory authority. The problem is often then investigated in cooperation with the regulatory authority and remediated with the focus on minimizing harm to the environment. If necessary, the supervisory authority may file criminal charges against the mining operator or impose an administrative fine, which means that the operator may have to pay a type of compensation for damages.

Sweden has strict environmental legislation in place, with the objective to promote sustainable development while ensuring that current and future generations can live in a healthy and good environment. Mines are an important piece of the puzzle in promoting sustainable development, considering that natural resources are needed to produce everything from infrastructure and means of transport to tools and machines in other industries. by means of good waste management and effective governmental supervision, the environmental impact of mining operations can be limited to a significant extent, while delivering the materials we need and use every day.

Last reviewed 2022-06-17