Quarrying & Mining – Good or Bad for the Environment?
Is quarrying an eco-positive or eco-damaging human activity? In short, it can be either. Like many things people do, the how, where and why it’s done makes all the difference. Comparable with other primary industries such as fishing and farming, it can be done in a sustainable or unsustainable way.
Here we look at the major issues with extracting mineral resources, how we can stop the problems from occurring and explore ways the industry can be part of the solution to the climate emergency.
How do quarries affect the environment?
It is well known that quarries and mines reshape the landscape, leaving permanent changes to topography, minerality, views, and possibly water flows. Additionally, without strong mitigation, adverse impacts on biodiversity and wildlife can be severe, even if only temporary.
Let’s just take a step back and look at the basic quarry process. Before the mineral resource can be accessed, the top layers of soil (overburden) are removed, and then the rock or sand is extracted by mechanical excavators or blasting. This extracted material is then crushed, cleaned and sifted into the aggregate size and purity required. Any material left that has no commercial value is termed 'mining waste', whilst the economically viable material is transported away to the market.
Obviously, all these activities will cause some disturbance to any resident wildlife on or near the quarry. It is likely to impact the habitat quality and scope, and the direct and indirect emissions need a study.
Before any quarry can be considered, an ecology survey and report is done by an independent specialist. This identifies any rare or endangered species that are likely to be affected by the proposal and is given great weight by the planning board. Statutory bodies such as Natural England vet all mining applications and advise on planning conditions necessary to avoid harm, whilst the planning authority can stipulate techniques and timings of work. In some cases, they mandate that an ecological officer is present on site when critical ground-clearing or wildlife protection works are undertaken. Any rehousing of protected species is done exclusively by licensed wildlife officers.
Traditionally, diesel power is responsible for running a quarry, processing the extracted material and transporting the finished aggregate to customers. In the UK, EU and other developed countries, the use of diesel has been declining over the past few years. This is in small part due to the greater efficiency of modern engines and largely in favour of cleaner power sources such as renewable electricity, biodiesel and the beginning of the green hydrogen era.
The lowering of the ground level can alter the course of surface water and underground streams and also allow silt and mineral concentrations to affect aquatic life. In certain regions, mining water can get contaminated by metallic minerals and become acidic. These issues must be addressed to avoid long-term and irrecoverable damage.
Why is quarrying even needed?
Quarries are also known as open-cast mines, where raw mineral material is extracted. This is vital for many other secondary products and industries, including those that are vital to achieving a clean, sustainable net-zero society. Everything that is around us is made from either organic material (bio-based) or inorganic (mineral-based) material. Most products are a mixture of both.
Demand is rising rapidly for certain metallic minerals such as lithium, selenium, and indium for EV, wind turbine and solar panel production. High-performance glazing glass, insulating mineral wool and other eco-building materials are made from mined minerals, as well as natural fertiliser that replaces petrochemical-derived ammonium nitrates.
Recycling and reusing minerals from demolition waste can reduce the need for new quarries and much of the equipment for this (crushers, wash-plants, trommels etc) is already used in the industry. However, many aggregate products require a certain minimum of pure, virgin minerals to achieve their required performance. This means a blend of recycling and extraction is needed.
Whilst technically the amount of available minerals in the earth’s crust is finite, the fact that this vast resource is in a large part recyclable means we have thousands of year’s supply.
Being able to shorten the distance from quarry to customer helps reduce the traffic and emissions associated with transport. However, if the location is near a village or other built-up area, local residents can worry about the additional traffic, noise, and dust that a new quarry could potentially cause. Silt runoff, lowering of the water table and loss of habitat can severely affect wildlife if not mitigated.
From a global perspective, importing minerals from ‘lower-cost’ countries usually involves ‘exporting’ the problems – often to countries that lack regulation and enforcement of environmental, social and other ethical protections. In some countries, this has not only affected wildlife, but forced the displacement of people too. The higher the value of the ore, along with poor government oversight and corruption, the greater risk there is of irregular and illegal mining.
Where quarries can be sited near navigable waterways or railways, long-distance transportation can be done very efficiently. Examples of this include Aggregate Industries Glensander granite quarry which loads directly onto ships that deliver around the UK and Europe, and Mendip Rail Ltd, a joint venture between Aggregate Industries and Hanson Aggregates which connects some of their largest quarries to customers throughout southern England.
The British Geological Survey (BGS) maintains a map of known mineral reserves, environmental monitoring data, plus the location of former workings and active quarries. Lithium, the metallic mineral identified as critical to the green-energy revolution, has been found in previously ‘exhausted’ Cornish tin mines, giving traditional mining communities a new lease of life.
The UK Mineral Planning Authority in each county or UK region ensures that critical minerals remain available to meet long-term demand, safeguarding potential quarry sites from development that would hamper their economic extraction potential. Considering this, it should be no surprise that quarries are usually sited on previously undeveloped, green land.
What happens when a new quarry is proposed?
No quarry can be opened in the UK without planning permission and other relevant permits and licenses obtained from governmental authorities such as the Environment Agency, Natural England/Scottish Environmental Protection Authority etc.
Before a planning application is submitted, extensive survey work is undertaken to establish the current habitats, species present, hydrology, geology, transport links and traffic flows around the neighbourhood. Although the cost of this is borne by the applicant, the surveys required for planning purposes are done by independent experts. These include the Environmental Impact Assessment, hydrology report and forecasted modelling to predict changes to flood risks and water tables.
A water management plan (WMP) is drawn up that demonstrates how the quarry operator will avoid the risk of flooding, adverse lowering of the water table and prevention of pollution by run-off. If water will be abstracted from rivers or discharged into the environment, a permit is required. This places strict requirements for maximum volume, flow-rate, quality, records and reporting and other conditions. EnviroHub is a system designed to actively manage this type of site water activity, enabling responsible operators to more easily achieve best practice.
If the applicant will be processing mining waste or recycling aggregate, then an environmental permit or registration will be necessary from the Environment Agency or regional equivalent. Mining waste is principally inert grit, subsoil, rock or tailings that has no current market demand.
UK planning controls, environmental authorities (EA, SEPA, Natural England etc) - plus the desire to protect their brand values, means that today’s quarry operators invest considerable time and effort into tackling the negatives of mineral extraction. As a result, today’s new quarries bring a bio-diversity net gain by creating new habitats, planting schemes, and utilising advanced protections such as water monitoring and treatment, dust abatement, and noise control. Post-quarry works are planned and agreed upon before work starts, often turning former quarries into nature reserves with beneficial wetlands, new sites for cliff-nesting birds, and wildlife meadows. Often the same topsoil and any ‘leftover’ extractions can be used for restoration to preserve the site’s natural characteristics as much as possible.
Planning authorities consult with many different interest groups and weigh up the validity and strength of arguments put forward. They also have to consider national and local policy, including their region's mineral plan. Should the local council arguably go against established policy, the National Planning Inspectorate can overturn their decision if it is appealed.
The various authorities regularly check on quarry operators, inspecting sites and records to ensure all planning and licensing responsibilities are being met. Most quarry companies invest considerable efforts into their environmental compliance and social responsibility, and there is a whole industry developing ways to help them achieve this more effectively.
Get the balance right on mining and everyone benefits from a better quality of life; communities, people and wildlife.
Planning and implementation of a new quarry or mine is a huge responsibility, balancing the needs of development and preservation. Planning decisions and quarry operators’ actions can damage or enhance local habitats, the natural environment, climate protections, affordable quality living, and local employment opportunities.
Responsible mining and quarrying at a local level reduces the need to ship vital mineral resources across the globe, brings biological and ecological net gain, and prospers the regional economy. Extensive research and innovation continue to find new ways to meet the needs of today whilst enabling us to protect the earth’s resources for future generations.
Atlantic Pumps have a range of hardware and software to help quarry operators manage their site water. If you are looking for ways to lessen the financial and operational burden of site water compliance and ensure your planning conditions are met, speak with an advisor today.