Pouring Energy and Waterinto a Bottomless Pit
ining is one ofthe most energy-intensive industriesin the world.The mining sector is thought to con-sume 7 to 10 percent ofannual global energy production.In the United States alone,mining uses 2.3 quadrillion(that’s 2,300,000,000,000,000) BTUs ofenergy per year—enough power to supply over 25 million single-family American households for a year,roughly 23 percent ofthecountry’s population.Most ofthe energy consumed by mining comes from fossil fuels,primarily coal and oil.(Nearly all ofthe rest comes from the hydro-electric powerused in aluminum smelting.)
Mining also requires gargantuan quantities offresh water.(Saltwater cannot be used because it corrodes equipment.) Largeamounts ofwater are needed for virtually every aspect oftheoperation—drilling,dust control,grinding ores,and so forth.At many mines,water is recycled—that is,it is fed through thesame operation repeatedly.But the systems leak.Tailings dis-posal,especially,results in a high volume ofwater loss,so morewater must be regularly pumped into the system.Paradoxically,given the huge water demand,mining isalso frequently challenged with the problem of
.Constant pumping can be necessary to keep themine accessible as it drops below the water table.Thepumping sometimes dries up streams and other surfacewaters.This type ofdisruption can outlive the operationitself:once a mine has closed and the pumping ceases,thepits may fill with water,drawing flow from naturalsources.Evaporation and seepage from the pits can per-manently alter groundwater movement—and the seepageis frequently contaminated with sulfuric acid and otherpollutants.There are no comprehensive estimates ofthe water volumethat flows through the industry.(In the United States,pumping water out ofmines is not defined as a “use”of that water,so there is no requirement to measure that atall.) But it is clear that mining can cause substantial hydro-logical disruption.In Nevada,for example,the USGeological Survey has found a decline in water tables by asmuch as 300 meters around some ofthe state’s largestopen-pit gold mines.One ofthese mines,Barrick’s Betzemine,pumps out 380,000 cubic meters (100 million gal-lons) ofgroundwater per day.
C l e ar i n gl an d f or mi n e , Gh an a /
P h o t o : P enn y T w e e d i e / Ox f am