What Are the Pros and Cons of Strip Mining?

Andrea Cross

Strip mining is a form of surface mining that is usually employed for the recovery of materials such as coal and tar sand, which are relatively near the surface of the earth. Surface vegetation, soil, and rocks are removed in strips, often in conjunction with controlled explosions, to make removal more efficient. Once the vein of material is exposed, it is removed and transported to be refined. The technique is somewhat controversial, with pros such as improved efficiency, cost, and safety and cons including the destruction of the natural ecosystem and potential for environmental pollutants.

Strip mining is used to recover resources that are close to the surface.
Strip mining is used to recover resources that are close to the surface.

Proponents of strip mining cite its better efficiency, cost, and safety as compared with traditional underground mining techniques. The recovery rate of materials is higher with strip mining, with approximately 80% to 90% of the material being recovered, as opposed to only approximately 50% with tunnel mining. This process is also much quicker as tunnels do not have to be dug and supported, and minerals are not lifted on long routes up to the surface. Both retrieval and transport are more straightforward with surface mining techniques.

Strip mining is considered very harmful to the environment.
Strip mining is considered very harmful to the environment.

The cost of mining with this method is also lower. This helps to defray production costs and thus, theoretically, the final cost of the material. Strip mining is also safer than underground mining, which can be hazardous due to collapsing tunnels and toxic air. Companies are now required to reclaim any land that they use for strip mining, filling in the removed areas and covering them with topsoil and replanted vegetation.

Critics of this mining method are concerned about its impact and reiterate cons such as the destruction of the natural ecosystem and the introduction of environmental pollutants. Even though companies are required by law to reclaim the land, once fragile ecosystems are disturbed, it can take a number of years to regain equilibrium, resulting in the loss of plant and animal life. If not done properly or if the reclamation takes a significant amount of time, the land becomes vulnerable to erosion and flooding, resulting in further destruction.

Nearby water sources can also become contaminated by the dumping of excavated material and from the use of extraction solvents. Strip mining can also release toxins and dust into the air, resulting in widespread and poorly controlled contamination. Measures are taken to prevent these occurrences, for example, in sealed tailing ponds. These ponds, in which liquid contaminants are placed until they become solid and can be safely removed, are supposed to keep the waste contained; however, leaks have been known to occur and contaminate nearby areas. Whatever the debate, strip mining remains a commonly used and efficient mining method.

Strip mining is safer for workers than tunnel mining.
Strip mining is safer for workers than tunnel mining.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - Mining technology has advanced to the point where tunnel mining isn't that dangerous these days, but strip mining remains a huge source of pollution, simply because they end up dumping so much earth out of the way in order to get to the coal. It's like using a sledge hammer when a needle would do. Maybe the needle won't be as effective, but it also won't destroy everything it touches.


@irontoenail - I guess you've got to look at what the better alternatives might be. It's inescapable that we have to have those materials at the moment, or people will suffer, either from loss of jobs or loss of power or whatever. Strip mining might seem like the worst way of doing business from an environmental point of view, but it also results in more materials being dug from a site than conventional mining.

On top of that, there isn't exactly much pristine wilderness left anyway. It's just as likely that strip mining could be done in areas where there isn't a thriving environment, in which case surface mining reclamation projects afterwards would provide a net improvement in wildlife.

Not to mention that mining tunnels ends up permanently damaging the ground, making it unstable, whereas strip mining can eventually be completely tidied up.


I just can't see how there are any pros to strip mining. It seems like it's only used to get materials which are already linked to pollution, like coal, and it completely wrecks the land in order to get at these materials.

The contamination of waterways is the absolute worst and it's something that can poison areas quite far away from the original dig site. Reclaiming the land afterwards seems like they are just putting a band-aid on a fatal wound. It's an unsustainable way of doing things.

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