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Coal Mining:

In 2004, mining sites contributed 52 percent of all hazardous waste sites located on, or next to, Tribal Lands. Over 600 coal mining sites were documented at this time, with more than half of these sites being located in EPA Region 8. Surface coal mining is a transforming activity with a high number of detrimental consequences, including soil erosion, acid-mine drainage and increased sediment load as a result of abandoned and un-reclaimed mined lands.

Acid mine drainage is created when water mixes with coal and other rocks unearthed during mining, taking on toxic levels of minerals and heavy metals. This toxic water leaks out of abandoned mines to contaminate groundwater, streams, soil, plants, animals and humans. As a result an orange color can blanket the river, estuary or sea bed killing plants and making surface water unusable as drinking water. Sources of acid mine drainage can remain active for decades or centuries after a mine closes.

Chemicals of Concern:

Coal mining effluent contains a high load of total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, calcium carbonate, and heavy metals, contaminating surface water and ground water. Heavy metals accumulate in water, soil, sediment, and living organisms. The occurrence of toxic metals in plants and water bodies adversely affects the lives of local people that utilize the water for daily requirements. Additionally, the heavy metals are incorporated into the food chain and levels increase through biological magnification.

Some metals used/released during coal mining activities and their affects on humans, animals and plants:
  • Aluminum (Al) High levels may result in respiratory and neurological problems.

  • Copper (Cu) Small amounts are considered non-toxic and necessary for human metabolism. However, large doses may induce vomiting or liver damage. Toxic to fish and aquatic life at low levels

  • Iron (Fe) Essentially non-toxic but causes taste problems in water.

  • Lead (Pb) Acumulative body poison in humans and live-stock. Humans may suffer acute or chronic toxicity. Young children are especially susceptible.

  • Manganese (Mn) Affects water taste and may stain laundry. Toxic to animals at high concentrations.

  • Selenium (Se) High levels may result in neurological effects and brittle hair and deformed nails. Bioaccumualtion can be seen in high levels of selenium, causing deformities in fish larvae and reproduction failure in fish and the birds that eat those fish.

  • Zinc (Zn) May affect water taste at high levels. Toxic to some plants and fish.

Implementing Solutions:

Please submit your experiences (successes/challenges) and tribal-specific documents to share on our website using the attached form.
Download Form


Publications on Mining Waste Management in Indian Country [pdf]

International Finance Corporation’s Environmental, Health, and Safety Guidelines MINING [pdf]

Management of Tailings and Waste-Rock in Mining Activities [pdf]

Hydrologic Considerations for Permitting and Liability Release [pdf]

For additional resources on this subject, including technical papers, media coverage, brochures, and reports, visit:
TAMS RIC - Resource Information Center


Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement – Regulating Coal Mines:

Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement – Reclaiming Abandoned Mine Lands:

Mining (except Oil and Gas) Sector (EPA Regulatory Information):

Toxic Release Inventory website of chemicals released by the coal mining industry can be generated through queries at:

NIOSH Mining Facts:

Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969:

Related Pages:

Contaminated Sites
Superfund CERCLA

For more information, please contact:
Todd Barnell, Program Manager
Tel: 928/523-3840
Email: Todd.Barnell@nau.edu

Jennifer Williams, Alaska Program Coordinator, Sr.
Tel: 928/523-0673
Email: Jennifer.Williams@nau.edu

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Last updated: July 10, 2015


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Northern Arizona University, South San Francisco Street, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011