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Mining & The Environment

The deleterious effects of the mining industry, particularly those of smelters and mills, on the environment have long been known. The Greek cultural geographer Strabo, writing early in the first century A.D., described the measures taken by Roman metallurgists in Spain to mitigate the effects of smelter fumes: "They build their silver-smelting furnaces with high chimneys, so that the gas from the ore may be carried high into the air, for it is heavy and deadly." (Strabo, Geography) The effects of this pollution spread far-and-wide. Analysis of the chemical composition of Greenland's glaciers show a demonstrable increase in lead concentrations corresponding to the time when the silver smelters described by Strabo began operating. 

black and white photo of mining campsiteOre processing likewise exacted a toll on lands adjacent to smelters. An article published in the 1860s described the adverse effects of smelting on the environment in rural England: "For generations past efforts have been made to . . . neutralize the smoke emitted from the various copper works of [Great Britain], which is known to be so injurious to all vegetation around. In the neighborhood of Swansea, which is the principal seat of the copper trade, there thousands of acres with hardly a blade of grass upon the ground, and in many instances the smelters have had to pay heavy damages for the injurious effects of the smoke on the adjoining properties--even trees many miles distance being affected." (Anonymous. "Utilization of Copper Smoke," American Journal of Mining, April 13, 1867)


Given the very nature of the hazardous by-products generated by mining and mineral processing activities, it should come as no surprise that today many former mining properties are listed as Superfund sites under the terms of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA targets four types of potentially responsible parties for Superfund liability:

  • owners of sites;
  • operators of sites;
  • transporters of hazardous substances; and
  • those who arrange for such transportation.

It is important to note that owners may be held liable even if they purchased land without knowledge of hazardous wastes contained on their property. CERCLA imposes strict liability and, therefore, does not require a specific finding of negligence before penalties may be imposed. Also, joint and several liability allows the EPA to force a party who may be responsible for only part of the damage to pay the entire cost of cleanup.

Defenses to liability are limited to:

  • acts of God;
  • acts of war;
  • actions of a third party;
  • innocent landowner defense; or
  • security interest exemption.

Among the many resources utilized to gather historical information related mining properties are the archival and published records of such federal agencies as the:


The Bureau of Mines was established July 1, 1910, within the Department of the Interior by act of May 16, 1910, as amended (30 U.S.C. 1, 2, 5-7). The bureau was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Commerce by Executive Order 4239 of June 4, 1925, effective July 1, 1925. The bureau was returned to the Department of the Interior by Executive Order 6611 of February 22, 1934, effective April 23, 1934. The historic predecessor of BOM was the Technologic Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey. BOM is the federal agency responsible for conducting scientific and engineering research designed to develop efficient methods of mining and producing essential minerals. The bureau is charged with inspecting mines, mills, and smelters and the dissemination of such information as would contribute to improvements in the mining industry.


The Geological Survey was established by the act of March 31, 1879 (20 Stat. 394: 43 U.S.C. 31), which provided for the "classification of the public lands and the examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain." Topographical mapping and chemical and physical research were recognized as an essential part of these investigations and studies; and specific provision was made for them by Congress in the act of October 2, 1888 (24 Stat. 505, 525).

Related Readings

  • Del Mar, Alexander. A History of the Precious Metals: From the Earliest Times to the Present, revised (New York: Cambridge Encyclopedia Company, 1902).
  • Eissler, M. The Metallurgy of Silver, A Practical Treatise on the Amalgamation, Roasting, and Lixiviation of Silver Ores: Including the Assaying, Melting, and Re fining of Silver Bullion (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1889).
  • Hodges, Henry. Technology in the Ancient World (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992).
  • Hughes, Donald J. Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1994).