Throughout most of human history, environmental stewardship during mining has not been a priority partly because of the lack of applicable laws and regulations and partly because of ignorance about the effects that mining can have on the environment. In the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, in conjunction with related laws, codified a more modern approach to mining, including the responsibility for environmental stewardship, and provided a framework for incorporating environmental protection into mine planning. Today, similar frameworks are in place in the other developed countries of the world, and international mining companies generally follow similar procedures wherever they work in the world. The regulatory guidance has fostered an international effort among all stakeholders to identify best practices for environmental stewardship.
The modern approach to mining using best practices involves the following: (a) establishment of a pre-mining baseline from which to monitor environmental effects during mining and help establish geologically reasonable closure goals; (b) identification of environmental risks related to mining through standardized approaches; and (c) formulation of an environmental closure plan before the start of mining. A key aspect of identifying the environmental risks and mitigating those risks is understanding how the risks vary from one deposit type to another—a concept that forms the basis for geoenvironmental mineral-deposit models.
Accompanying the quest for best practices is the goal of making mining sustainable into the future. Sustainable mine development is generally considered to be development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept extends beyond the availability of nonrenewable mineral commodities and includes the environmental and social effects of mine development.
Global population growth, meanwhile, has decreased the percentage of inhabitable land available to support society’s material needs. Presently, the land area available to supply the mineral resources, energy resources, water, food, shelter, and waste disposal needs of all Earth’s inhabitants is estimated to be 135 square meters per person. Continued global population growth will only increase the challenges of sustainable mining.
Current trends in mining are also expected to lead to new environmental challenges in the future, among which are mine-waste management issues related to mining larger deposits for lower ore grade; water-management issues related to both the mining of larger deposits and the changes in precipitation brought about by climate change; and greenhouse gas issues related to reducing the carbon footprint of larger, more energy-intensive mining operations.