Guess What’s Polluting 27 Billion Gallons of Water Each Year?

The damage done costs as much as $67 billion annually.
A new study illustrates the disturbing truth about what mining is doing to our water supply. (Photo: Steve Baxter/Getty Images)
May 3, 2013
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

A new and sobering report from Earthworks details just how hard mining is on the environment, especially on our dwindling supply of fresh water.

How bad are gold, copper and uranium—the so-called “hard rock”—mines? Try the despoiling of 17 to 27 billion gallons of fresh water per year in the U.S. alone.

The annual cost of water treatment by the hard-rock mining industry is a mind-numbing $57 to $67 billion per year. Just 40 mines, most in the American West, cause most of that damage and expense.

How? Virtually all mining operations involve exposing sulfide-bearing ore, which generates sulfuric acid, which then washes into the water supplies.

In Polluting the Future: How Mining Companies are Polluting Our Nation’s Water in Perpetuity, environmental researcher Lisa Sumi and scientist Bonnie Gestring detail the specifics of where and how bad the problem is.

In the simplest terms, the authors suggest if the water polluted by mines were bottled, it would fill two trillion water bottles and stretch back and forth to the moon 54 times.

The report also suggests that four new proposed mines could pollute an additional 16 billion gallons a year.

Talking about water supplies can be a slippery subject. There are something like 326 million trillion gallons of water on the planet, which are constantly being cycled and recycled: Water evaporates from the ocean, travels through the air, rains down on the land and eventually makes its way back to the ocean.

Since roughly 72 percent of planet Earth is covered by ocean, that means 98 percent of those 326 million trillion gallons are saltwater, thus undrinkable.

That leaves just two percent of the planet’s water as fresh—and 80 percent of that is locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers. Which means in relative terms, there is very little clean, fresh water on the planet, and when you muck it up, as the mining industry is doing to aquifers, rivers and fisheries, it’s ruined forever. Dirty water is never again truly pure, no matter the filtration systems.

The authors of the report make specific suggestions on how the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers could close legal loopholes that would force mines to pollute less.

Since the EPA has already identified 156 hard-rock mining sites across the country that have the potential to cost between $7 billion to $24 billion to clean up, a key solution would seem to be to prohibit new mines coming online to add to the problem.

If any of these four proposed mines are in your backyard, you should speak up now, and let them know that if they’re going to spoil more fresh water, we don’t need them:

  1. Donlin Creek gold mine in southwest Alaska. Estimated annual volume of polluted water: 1.7 billion gallons.
  2. Pebble Mine, Bristol, Alaska. Estimated annual volume of polluted water: 13.8 billion gallons.
  3. Northmet copper and nickel, Minnesota’s Iron Range. Estimated annual volume of polluted water: 93 to 256 million gallons.
  4. Rock Creek mine, near Noxon, Montana. Estimated annual volume of polluted water: 1.2 billion gallons.

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

Following the Bees, Weather, and Waterways That U.S. Produce Needs to Thrive