11 Environmental Impacts of Gold Mining

Gold has traditionally been a gift of love, hence the consistent spike in the jewelry price. It has been used as a Valentine’s gift, birthday gift, Christmas gift, and gift to someone you value. However, most consumers don’t know where the gold in their products comes from or how it is mined. And the possible environmental impacts of gold mining.

The majority of the world’s gold is extracted from open pit mines, where huge volumes of earth are scoured away and processed for trace elements. Studies show that, to produce a measurable quantity of raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tons of rock and soil are dislodged and discarded.

Much of this waste carries mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract the gold from the rock. The resulting erosion clogs streams and rivers and can eventually contaminate marine ecosystems far downstream of the mine site.

Exposing the deep earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulfuric acid, which can leak into drainage systems.

Gold mining also affects air quality, which releases hundreds of tons of airborne elemental mercury every year. Communities are displaced, contaminated workers are hurt, and the pristine environment is destroyed.

All these make gold mining one of the most destructive industries in the world. This article will give us an extensive view of the environmental impacts of gold mining.

Environmental Impact of Gold Mining

11 Environmental Impacts of Gold Mining

We discussed with your interest, the impacts of gold mining on the environment. They include:

  • Water Pollution
  • Increase of Solid Waste
  • Release of Hazardous Substance
  • Biodiversity Loss
  • Impact on Human Health
  • Destruction of Natural Habitat
  • Loss of Soil
  • Pollution of Groundwater
  • Effect on Aquatic Organism
  • Abnormal Development in Children
  • Air Pollution

1. Water Pollution

Gold mining can have devastating effects on nearby water resources. Toxic mine waste contains dangerous chemicals, which include arsenic, lead, mercury, petroleum byproducts, acids, and cyanide.

The worst of it is seen in the routine dump of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans by mining companies around the world.

Research has shown that about 180 million metric tons of such waste are dumped annually. But even if they do not, such toxins often contaminate waterways when infrastructure such as tailings dams, which hold my waste, fails.

According to the UNEP, there have been over 221 major tailings dam failures. These have killed hundreds of people around the world, displaced thousands, and contaminated the drinking water of millions.

The resulting contaminated water is called acid mine drainage, a toxic cocktail uniquely destructive to aquatic life. This environmental damage ultimately affects us. In addition to drinking water contamination, AMD’s byproducts, such as mercury and heavy metals, work their way into the food chain and affect human health and animals for generations.

2. Increase of Solid Waste

Digging up ore displaces huge piles of earth and rock. Processing the ore to produce metals generates immense quantities of additional waste, as the amount of recoverable metal is a small fraction of the total ore mass. Just like stated above, the manufacture of an average gold ring generates more than 20 tons of waste.

Also, many gold mines employ a process known as heap leaching, which includes dripping a cyanide solution through huge piles of ore. 

The solution strips away the gold and is collected in a pond, which is then run through an electrochemical process to extract the gold. This method of producing gold is cost-effective but enormously wasteful 99.99% of the heap becomes waste.

Gold mining areas are frequently studded with these immense, toxic piles. Some reach heights of 100 meters (over 300 feet), nearly the height of a 30-story building, and can take over entire mountainsides.

To cut costs, the heaps are often abandoned and left to contaminate groundwater and poison neighboring communities such as Miramar, Costa Rica.

3. Release of Hazardous Substance

Metal mining was the number one toxic polluter in the United States in 2010. It is responsible for 1.5 billion pounds of chemical waste annually—more than 40% of all reported toxic releases.

For example, in 2010, gold mining released the following in the United States: over 200 million pounds of arsenic, over 4 million pounds of mercury, and over 200 hundred million pounds of lead were released into the environment.

4. Biodiversity Loss

The mining industry has a long record of threatening natural areas, including officially protected areas.

Nearly three-quarters of active mines and exploration sites overlap with regions defined as having high conservation value and posing a major threat to biodiversity, such as some of these mine sites around the world:

i. The Grasberg Mine Indonesia

The Indonesian province of West Papua, which is the western half of the island of New Guinea, is home to Lorentz National Park, the largest protected area in Southeast Asia.

This 2.5 million-hectare expanse, about the size of Vermont, was declared a National Park in 1997 and a World Heritage Site in 1999. But as early as 1973, Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc., had begun chasing veins of gold through nearby formations.

This operation eventually led to the discovery of the world’s richest lode of gold and copper, lying close to the park boundary. 

The resulting open-pit mine, Grasberg, operated by its subsidiary PT Freeport Indonesia, has already contaminated the coastal estuary, the Arafura Sea and possibly Lorentz National Park

ii. Akyem Mine Ghana

The Akyem mine in Ghana was opened by Newmont in 2007. This open-pit mine is the largest in Ghana and has destroyed 183 acres of protected forests.

Much of Ghana’s forested land has been denuded over the past 40 years. Less than 11% of the original forest cover remains. This biodiversity hotspot supports  83 species of birds, as well as threatened and endangered species such as Pohle’s fruit bat, Zenker’s fruit bat, and Pel’s flying squirrel.

The forest reserves of Ghana are also extremely important for protecting many rare and threatened plant species. Many community members opposed the construction of the Akyem mine for its potential to contaminate freshwater and destroy the forests on which they depend.

5. Impact on Human Health

Gold mines are industrial operations that can have significant impacts not only on the surrounding environment but also on local communities. Gold mining poses risks to human health and the environment because it can leak toxic chemicals (like arsenic) into waterways.

ARD can impact drinking water that is sourced from the local aquifer or downstream surface water intakes. Toxic metals dissolved in acid rock drainage can pose serious risks to human health.

Additionally, ARD can cause aesthetic impacts such as elevated concentrations of iron in drinking water that generate an unpleasant flavor and can stain clothing and household surfaces.

Likewise, elevated sulfur compounds may lead to an unpalatable taste or odor in the water, with the potential for gastrointestinal impacts.

Historically, the most important impacts of mining-associated air emissions have been occupational exposures to certain kinds of particles that cause a large set of occupational lung diseases.

These are generally interstitial lung diseases and include examples such as asbestosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), and silicosis.

Inhalational exposure to dust containing high concentrations of elements such as aluminum, antimony, iron, and barium, or minerals such as graphite, kaolin, mica, and talc, can also cause pneumoconiosis.

6. Destruction of Natural Habitat

Physical conversion of land into gold mining operations also destroys or degrades natural habitat for flora and fauna, which may lead to decreased biodiversity as well.

Across the Commonwealth, dozens of species are threatened or endangered and vulnerable to mining activities, including bats, birds, amphibians, turtles, and freshwater fishes and mussels.

The disturbance to these and other species can occur through the removal of trees and other vegetation, removal of topsoil overburden that releases organic carbon and nitrogen, installation of access roads, blasting and excavation of soil and rock, redistribution of water on-site, and transport of solutes and chemicals (e.g., metals, nitrates) in surface water and groundwater.

Such adverse effects on habitat can affect local species diversity, but can also extend to migratory species, such as neotropical migrating bird species.

7. Loss of Soil

One prevalent impact of mining on natural habitats is the loss of soil and subsequent sediment and nutrient (e.g., nitrogen) loading into wetlands and waterways because the removal of soils is necessary to allow the construction of open pits, roads, facilities, ponds, tailings storage facilities, and waste rock piles.

In some cases, the original soil may be lost if not appropriately salvaged before mining or stockpiled and maintained during operations.

Even if soil material is salvaged for future use, re-creating the physical properties, microbial communities, and nutrient status of these original soils may not be possible, even during land reclamation.

8. Pollution of Groundwater

For example, groundwater polluted by ARD from South African gold mines ultimately enters perennial streams. Likewise, seeps of ARD from the inactive Minnesota gold and silver mine in Colorado have a specific conductance that fluctuates daily, seasonally, and after rainfall events.

Finally, elevated concentrations of dissolved metals and other elements are common in ARD and have a wide array of adverse effects on organisms and ecosystems.

9. Effect on Aquatic Organism

The seeps in groundwater contribute to the contamination of a nearby headwater stream (Lion Creek), causing the conductivity in the stream to rise to seasonal highs sufficient to harm many sensitive freshwater fauna.

Collectively, low pH, high dissolved metals, and high conductivity/salinity can depress populations of aquatic organisms at all levels of the food web (including plants), and, as a result, entire aquatic communities can be decimated by ARD

10. Abnormal Development in Children

Absorption of significant levels of cadmium from water sources can result in some adverse health outcomes.

Cadmium is associated with neurodevelopmental toxicity in children, and has a long retention time in the kidney, it is known to cause renal toxicity in children and adults as a function of cumulative dose. Cadmium also causes lung cancer and is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen.

Lead is a human toxicant with well-documented health effects in fetuses, children, and adults. Toxicity can be found in almost every organ system, including the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system, as well as the reproductive, cardiovascular, hematopoietic, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal systems.

Lead poisonings from gold mining have resulted in tragic events internationally. Lead exposure due to artisanal gold mining in northern Nigeria was the largest known occurrence of lead poisoning in history.

11. Air Pollution

Various air pollutants can be generated from gold mining activities. Some of these agents are hazardous air pollutants known to carcinogenic Substance or other serious health impacts (e.g, mercury, certain species of volatile organic compounds [VOCs]), whereas others are common air pollutants called criteria air pollutants (e.g., particulate matter, carbon monoxide [CO], sulfur dioxide [SO2], nitrogen oxides [NOx], ozone [O3]).

Fugitive dust may also be emitted from mine sites from drilling, blasting, ore crushing, roasting, smelting, hauling, and moving of materials, excavation activities, heavy equipment, mine road traffic, storage, and disposal of waste.

The dust produced from many of these operations tends to contain relatively large particles that settle out of the air quickly and do not penetrate far into the respiratory system.

But if it is not controlled, the dust can be hazardous, especially if it contains high concentrations of potentially toxic elements, such as the metals described in the “Metals and Another source of air pollutant from gold mines that may impact air quality and public health beyond the mine site is the exhaust from fuel-burning vehicles and machines.

Combustion of fossil fuels, in particular diesel, leads to emissions of gases and vapors, including CO, NOx, and VOCs, as well as fine particulate matter that comprises elemental and organic carbon, ash, sulfate, and metals


This article has outlined the impacts of the gold mining environment. I do hope this will inform your decision on the more environmentally friendly and sustainable method you will need to consider for all your mining activities, not only in the mining of gold but in the general mining of other natural resources.


Environmental Consultant at Environment Go! | + posts

Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.

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