University of Bristol
Wellcome Trust
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Mining and Quarrying

What is mining and quarrying?

Man has been mining since the early development of society e.g. Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. Virtually every manufactured item contains mineral products which have been mined or quarried.

Quarrying is normally associated with the extraction of rock using opencast techniques and leaving large holes in the ground.

1km of motorway requires 125,000 tonnes of crushed stone.

Mining can be opencast but more often involves digging tunnels below ground. Normally topsoil and underlying bedrock is removed (known as overburden) and stacked on spoil heaps nearby. Rock from tunnelling is added to this.

Mined compounds are normally classified into four groups:

  1. Metals (copper and aluminium)
  2. Industrial minerals (lime, soda ash)
  3. Construction materials (sand, gravel)
  4. Energy materials (coal, uranium)

Global economic aspects

  • As the human population grows, there is a greater demand for minerals.
  • Since 1900, there has been a thirteen-fold increase in demand.
  • In the 70’s there were concerns that certain minerals would run-out.
  • Discovery of new resources and an increase in recycling has largely prevented the total depletion of many mineral resources. Some minerals, if recycled, could possibly be thought of as ‘renewable resources’?
  • Many countries export minerals and this is an important source of income.

Environmental impacts

In 1556, Georgius Agricola noted the devastating effects of mining:

Open quoteof the detractors [of mining] that the fields are devastated by mining operations, for which reason formerly Italians were warned by law that no one should dig the earth for metals and so injure their very fertile fields, their vine yards, and their olive groves. Also they argue that the woods and groves are cut down, for there is a need for an endless amount of wood for timbers, machines, and the smelting of metals. And when the woods and groves are felled, then are exterminated the beasts and birds, very many of which furnish a pleasant and agreeable food for man. Further, when the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away. Therefore the inhabitants of these regions, on account of the devastation of their fields, woods, groves, brooks and rivers, find great difficulty in procuring the necessaries of life, and by reason of the destruction of the timber they are forced to greater expense in erecting buildings.Close quote


A pit shaft engine that lowers miners into the ground.Today, mining and quarrying have the following environmental impacts:

  • Loss of natural landscape and biodiversity
  • Loss of aesthetic value to the local landscape
  • Noise pollution
  • Air and water pollution(some mine waste is highly toxic)
  • Dereliction
  • Changes to local hydrology (water flow and quality)
  • Erosion

What are the options to reduce these impacts?

  • One approach is to accept the damage on the grounds that it would be too expensive to do anything about it. In Estonia, oil shale mining and gravel extraction have destroyed 1% of the land. UTAH in the USA has one of the largest human extractions – Copper mining has produced a hole of 7.2 km2 and 770m deep and over 3400 million tonnes of ore have been extracted.
  • Insist on remedial work to reclaim damaged land after mining. This might involve filling in holes, levelling spoil heaps and regrassing.
  • Insist on sufficient preventative measures to ensure that the damage is kept to a bare minimum, e.g. the water that drains off the spoil heaps and tailings should not contaminate local streams and rivers.
  • Not allow mining in environmentally sensitive areas. Antarctica has massive mineral reserves, should they be exploited?
  • Recycle minerals.
  • Extract ores from tailing and spoil heaps using new ‘biological’ techniques.


Next: Climate Change


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jacscS 22-03-11 10:49
this is incredible. By the beard of zeus how is it that Copper mining has produced a hole of 7.2 km2 and 770m deep and over 3400 million tonnes of ore have been extracted.

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1. Old tailings and spoil heaps contain low levels of minerals which were in the past too expensive to extract. New ‘biological techniques’ are being developed to extract these minerals. Find out more about this process -
 Poison-Eating Bugs Strike Gold 


2. Search the internet for images that show successful reclamation of land from spoil heaps and tailings. Present a poster with ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs. Under each photograph state the source of the image and give a date.

3. Disused gravel pits have been turned into havens for wildlife.
 Read about such a success story in Nottinghamshire: