Home » Environmental Pressures of Current Mining in Germany: a Critical Comment

Environmental Pressures of Current Mining in Germany: a Critical Comment

Mines interfere with the environment. However, active mining in Germany in its various forms causes only small overall environmental pressures, based on data from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, due to its limited land use, waste production, water extraction as well as particulate matter and greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, federal politics should acquire and present to the public strategies, key issue papers, writings and websites on German mining that reflect these scientific facts. In future, it is important for the German mining sector to remain a global role model for environmental stewardship and land restoration and to move from individual examples of excellence to normality.

Author/Autor: Univ.-Prof. PhD Bernd G. Lottermoser, Lehrstuhl für nachhaltige Rohstoffgewinnung, Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE), RWTH Aachen University (RWTH), Aachen/Germany

1  Introduction

A recognition of the German mining sector in its own country as an important factor for a flourishing economy and its responsible environmental stewardship and nature conservation is missing. Despite its economic performance and the rehabilitation of mining legacies at the highest international level (1), mines and mining companies have a rather poor image among the many facets of German politics and the general public and especially among nature conservationists and environmental groups. Despite world-leading environmental protection measures and standards, German mining is neither accepted nor appreciated in politics or society. Especially in ideologically and politically motivated narratives or poorly researched articles, it is repeatedly pointed out that the mining of raw materials is associated with dramatic consequences for the environment. Such articles, reports, media contributions and websites are limited to purely qualitative and general statements and thus only represent opinions, like the one of the Federal Environment Agency on the responsible supply of raw materials in Germany (2): “Active mining in its diverse manifestations leads to considerable impacts to the environment, in particular to nature and water balances”. Such impotent statements are made without quantitative analyses and robust methods and without a presentation of scientific data. However, documentation and evaluation of quantitative data correspond to good scientific practice and internationally accepted standards, especially in the environmental sciences.

The above opinions on mining are also in stark contrast to international scientific studies, which show that, e. g., in the global context metal mining causes only minor environmental impacts through land use, water abstraction and greenhouse gas emissions (3). It is therefore necessary to clarify the relative contribution and magnitude of environmental pressures caused by the German mining sector.

This article firstly outlines the fundamental factors that determine environmental impacts of mines in general. Subsequently, the pressures of active German mining on the environment are presented using the DPSIR model (Driving Forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses) (4, 5). This contribution thereby refers to publicly available data from the Federal Statistical Office, which, due to data availability, had to be limited to aspects such as land use, waste production, water withdrawal as well as greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions. The environmental pressures caused by active German mining are compared with other anthropogenic activities, while the environmental impacts of historic and closed mining operations are not considered here. As a result, this article contributes to the scientific discourse on the pressures, impacts, and effects of active German mining on the environment.

2  Effects and impacts of mining on landscapes and the environment

2.1  Controlling parameters

Mining effects the environment, because mineral extraction processes occur in the Earth’s natural spheres and they interact with these subsystems, i. e., lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, pedosphere, atmosphere. Mines may emit, e. g., greenhouse gases, particulate matter, pollutants and noise, cause vibrations, produce waste, and have an impact on the individual spheres, e. g., deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water, sediment, soil and air pollution, mine subsidence and hazards. Consequently, mining influences the natural flow of materials and energy in the Earth’s spheres. The extraction of primary raw materials is therefore inevitably accompanied by interventions of the natural Earth systems. Mining may cause a variety of effects on the geospheres, with each mine having its own unique set of challenges.

Possible environmental hazards and pollution at terrestrial mining sites are diverse, varied, and site-specific. The fundamental parameters that determine the impact of mining on landscapes and the environment have been known for some time (6). Mineral deposits are accumulations of primary raw materials in the Earth’s crust and result from various geological processes. During these processes, the deposits acquire specific geological characteristics, including the amount and type of elements enriched in the deposits, the type of minerals formed and their grain size, and the rock types associated with the deposits. Such fundamental geological aspects of mineral deposits have important and predictable environmental impacts. The geology of a mineral deposit, e. g., can affect the chemistry of local ground and surface waters and the properties of dusts, soils and sediments. Such effects and impacts of mineral deposits on the environment may also occur naturally. Alternatively, they can be exacerbated or even caused by improper mining practices.

Local climate, hydrology and topography also play an important role in the type and extent of environmental hazards and pressures at a mine site (6). At a steep topographic location, e. g., contaminants can be transported faster and further than at a mine location that is not so steep. At a humid location, contaminants can be widely distributed via an aqueous transport mode. At an arid location, dust emissions may be the main transport mode of contaminants.

The type and size of the mining and processing operations and their practices also determine the type and size of environmental impacts of a mine. Thus, deposit geology as well as local climate, hydrology and topography, together with mining and mineral processing practices (including crushing), control the nature and magnitude of environmental hazards and pressures at mine sites. Ultimately, the implementation of environmental regulations by the legislator influences the effectiveness of all environmental protection measures. Here, the precautionary principle, the elimination of environmental pressures at their source and the polluter pays principle support the effectiveness of environmental regulations.

2.2  Environmental indicators

Environmental analyses are routine tasks of the environmental management at active mine sites (5). Such monitoring provides information on the current state of the environment at individual locations. In general, environmental analyses aim to track changes in the quality and condition of the Earth’s spheres at different geographic and temporal scales. At mine sites, such data provides information about conditions and processes that may exist or develop during the life-of-mine from exploration to closure.

An environmental indicator is based on a parameter, or a value derived from parameters, that describes the state of the environment and its impact on people, ecosystems and materials, the pressures on the environment, the drivers and the responses that control that system (European Environment Agency, Glossary). The DPSIR model is widely used to relate human activities to the state of the environment (4, 5). Within a DPSIR analysis, indicators are assigned to the individual components of the environmental system under consideration to provide information about

(i)     driving forces;
(ii)   resulting environmental pressures;
(iii)  the state of the environment;
(iv)   impacts resulting from changes in environmental quality; and
(v)    responses to these changes in the environment (5).

In mining, pressure indicators describe, e. g., the land use of a mine, the amount of mine waste produced, the extraction of ground and surface water, or the emission of particulate matter and greenhouse gases. By contrast, state indicators provide information on the current exposure, e. g., water quality and noise (Table 1). Impact indicators, on the other hand, communicate the effect on the spheres with their consequences, e. g., loss of biodiversity. Response indicators refer to responses and attempts to prevent, compensate, improve, or adapt to changes in the state of the environment, e. g., through investments in environmental protection.

Table 1. Examples of environmental indicators describing the interactions between mining and the environment according to the DPSIR framework (Driving Forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses) (5). // Tabelle 1. Beispiele für Umweltindikatoren zur Beschreibung der Wechselwirkungen zwischen Bergbau und Umwelt gemäß DPSIR-Framework (Driving Forces, Pressures, States, Impacts, Responses). Source/Quelle: MRE

2.3  Environmental pressures of mining in Germany

This article refers to data which, as indicators, mainly allow statements to be made about the environmental pressures of active mining in Germany, i. e. land use, waste production, water withdrawal, greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions. On the other hand, there is no comprehensive national data on the state and impact of mining on the environment for certain environmental media and impacts, e. g., loss of biodiversity, water quality. Due to the data situation, the focus of this article is on pressure indicators, while no quantitative statements on status and impact indicators are possible (state and impact indicators). As a result, the following indicators are particularly relevant for assessing the environmental pressures of active mining in Germany.

2.3.1  Land use

The area required by German mining (mining operations, opencast mines, pits, quarries) is only a fraction of the land area of the Federal Republic of Germany (2021: 1,407 km2, approximately 0.4 %) (7). This is a tiny fraction compared to the vast tracts of land used for agriculture and forestry (180,590 km2, 50.5 %; 106,699 km2, 29.8 %, respectively) and compared to the area of wind power plants, which is increase from currently 0.8 % to 2 %. Mining areas, on the other hand, are areas of temporary land use because closed and rehabilitated areas become once again available for industrial, agricultural or other subsequent uses. Therefore, the area of mining land in Germany calculated annually by the Federal Statistical Office does not increase any further. It has even been declining continuously for decades (1992: 1,878 km2; 2000: 1,796 km2; 2010: 1,623 km2; 2021: 1,407 km2) (7, 8). Since 1992, the mining area in Germany has decreased by 471 km2 or 25 %.

2.3.2  Emissions

The extraction of mineral raw materials and coal, especially in opencast mines, is associated with emissions of greenhouse gases, coarse and fine dust as well as noise. The greenhouse gas and fine dust emissions in the extraction of stone and aggregate, coal and ores decreased between 2000 and 2020 (Figures 1, 2, 3). The greenhouse gas emissions of the mining sector are only a small fraction (2020: 4.5 Mt CO2 equivalent, approximately 0.5 %) compared to the total emissions from all German economic sectors and private households (824 Mt CO2 equivalent, according to Kyoto-Protocol) (9).

Fig. 1. Total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFC, PFC, SF6, NF3) (1,000 t CO2 equivalent) for the German mining sector over the years 2000 to 2020, including CO2 emissions from biomass (9). // Bild 1. Treibhausgas-Emissionen (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFC, PFC, SF6, NF3) insgesamt (1.000 t CO2-Äquivalent) für den deutschen Bergbausektor über die Jahre 2000 bis 2020 (9), einschließlich CO2-Emissionen aus Biomasse (9).

Fig. 2. Total particulate matter emissions (PM10, tonnes) for the German mining sector over the years 2000 to 2020 (9). // Bild 2. Feinstaub-Emissionen (PM10, Tonnen) insgesamt für den deutschen Bergbausektor über die Jahre 2000 bis 2020 (9).

Fig. 3. Total particulate matter emissions (PM2.5, tonnes) for the German mining sector over the years 2000 to 2020 (9). // Bild 3. Feinstaub-Emissionen (PM2,5, Tonnen) insgesamt für den deutschen Bergbausektor über die Jahre 2000 bis 2020 (9).

Particulate matter emissions from the mining sector also only represent fractions (2020: approximately 9.3 % PM10, approximately 3.4 % PM2.5) compared to the particulate matter emissions of all German economic sectors and private households (180,138 t PM10 and 81,181 t PM2.5 emissions in total, according to the Kyoto Protocol) (Figures 2, 3). In a whole year (2020), coal mining produced the same magnitude of PM10 fine dust (2,978 t) (9), as the burning of fireworks on New Year’s Eve (2,050 t) (10). Nevertheless, innovations in dust suppression at mine sites are still needed. Recent research at RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany, has shown by-products and wastes from food processing to be potentially environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional dust suppressants (11, 12).

In the Federal Immission Control Act (BImschG), open-cast mines are classified as “installations not requiring approval”. The noise limit values for opencast mines are therefore only guideline values, which have been set at 60 dB(A) during day time and 45 dB(A) at night for commercial centers, villages and mixed housing and commercial areas around opencast mines (13). Operators must also set up and operate systems in such a way that harmful environmental effects are prevented, and unavoidable harmful environmental effects are reduced to a minimum. In the Rhenish lignite mining area, emission measurements have shown, e. g., that these have been below the guideline values in almost all cases for years (14). On the other hand, significantly lower environmental standards apply to a state-owned company such as the Deutsche Bahn, since there is a 18,500 km DB route network with > 57 dB(A), i. e. 18,500 km of DB route network are at least twice as loud as the nightly reference values for opencast mines. These gigantic DB noise emission routes are not to be rectified until 2050 (15).

2.3.3  Waste production

Depending on the characteristics of a deposit and the extraction and processing practices, large amounts of waste can be produced at mine sites. In the German mining sector, non-hazardous waste predominates (> 99 %), and the amount of waste from the mining sector is a small proportion (2020: 28.6 Mt; approximately 6.9 %) of the total waste generated in Germany (413 Mt) (16). In addition, the amount of hazardous and non-hazardous waste generated during extraction and treatment of mineral resources fell continuously between 1996 and 2020 in Germany (Figure 4).

Fig. 4. Mining wastes and wastes from the extraction and treatment of mineral resources (1,000 t) in the years 1996 to 2020 (16). // Bild 4. Bergematerial aus dem Bergbau bzw. Abfälle aus Gewinnung und Behandlung von Bodenschätzen (1.000 t) in den Jahren 1996 bis 2020 (16).

2.3.4  Ground and surface waters

At many sites, the extraction of mineral raw materials and coal using open pits requires pumping of groundwater. This is where the German mining sector is having a major impact on the Earth’s spheres, with over 1,288 M m3 of water being extracted in 2019 (17). However, water abstraction by the mining sector is only a fraction (approximately 6.2 %) of the total amount of abstraction by the public and non-public water supply and sanitation (total water extraction ca. 20,716 M m3) (17). Most of the water withdrawn is returned back into receiving waters and aquifers via seepages and direct discharges (approximately 1,079 M m3) (17). The most significant pumping and reintroduction of groundwater takes place in opencast lignite mining (approximately 1,000 M m3, so the remaining water withdrawal from other mining operations is only a fraction of the total water withdrawal in Germany (approximately 209 M m3, 1 %).

Until recently, Germany was spared mining-related, sudden environmental catastrophes. Yet in August 2022, the river Oder was affected by severe environmental damage over a length of around 500 km, in which fish, mussels, crabs and snails died on an unprecedented scale (18). Toxic algae blooms caused by low water levels, low oxygen levels, high water temperatures and the rapid discharge of large amounts of saline mine water from operations in Poland are likely to blame (18). In order to prevent such accidents in the future, mobile and lab-based measuring devices, online availability of the monitoring data, and official reporting chains are required, as they already exist in other mining regions of the world, e. g., Hunter River Salinity Trading Scheme, Australia. Moreover, innovations in determining mine water quality are needed. Recent research at RWTH has shown portable devices to be potentially low-cost methods compared to traditional laboratory approaches (19, 20).

2.3.5  Biodiversity

The decline in terrestrial biodiversity is mainly attributed to land use changes. The fact that agriculture is a driving force behind the loss of biodiversity in Germany has been acknowledged for some time (21). Mines also have a land use, albeit a small one, are connected to the biosphere and can therefore have an impact on biodiversity. In this context, however, it has been established that mining contributes to less than 1 % of the total land-use-related biodiversity loss worldwide (22).

Active and disused mine sites have a high ecological value and offer opportunities as “wandering biotopes” (23). Half of all Bavarian owls, e. g., breed in quarries (24). During recultivation, former mine sites can contribute to the development of biodiversity due to their diverse terrain types, because site diversity favors species diversity and the rich structure allows the development of a wide variety of small-scale habitats. In addition, German post-mining landscapes offer great potential as wilderness areas. These locations often consist of different ecosystems and developing into different ecosystems and, as large, (largely) undivided, use-free areas, which allow the (re)development of biodiversity (25).

Despite the above facts, descriptions of the various threats to biodiversity in Germany repeatedly and extensively refer to mining (26). However, the Federal Environment Agency does not point out to the public other and far greater causes of biodiversity loss. The largest global human-related loss of birds and mammals, e. g., is caused by the domestic cat Felis catus, ranging from domestic to feral domestic cats (27). In Germany, the approximately 15 million domestic cats and 2 million feral cats are responsible for the loss of approximately 1 million birds, mammals and reptiles per day (28). However, only 9 % of all German cities and municipalities are currently following the Paderborn model (registration and castration of domestic cats). Ultimately, many governments, including Germany’s, are failing to meet their international obligations to prevent, reduce or eliminate the impact of free-roaming and feral domestic cats on biodiversity (27).

3  Ecological approach to domestic mining

The existing German raw materials strategy, the key issues paper on raw material supply and the coalition agreement of the federal government repeatedly emphasize that domestic raw material extraction in Germany should be ecologically oriented (29, 30, 31). The term “ecological” was (un)consciously not defined in these strategic policy documents. Here, it is assumed that an ecological orientation of domestic mining means an ecological industrial policy according to the definition of the Federal Environment Agency, i. e. a strategic orientation of the industrial policy instruments to the central challenges of climate protection, global environmental destruction, scarcity of resources.

The German mining sector has made phenomenal progress in its ability to observe, measure and describe mining environments. This also includes best practice environmental protection protocols, standards and remediation technologies for waste management, sewage management, noise and vibration protection, air pollution control, species and landscape protection, protection and remediation of soil, groundwater and surface water, avoidance and reduction of greenhouse gases, use of renewable energies, energy efficiency and energy savings. Germany is a global leader here and German mining companies invested comparatively more in environmental protection in 2020 (805 M €) than many other manufacturing industries such as the textile, clothing and furniture industries (32), which generate higher gross added values. However, investment in environmental protection by the mining sector is only a fraction (approximately 0.9 %) of the total investment by the manufacturing industry excluding construction (a total of 89,734 M €) (32). The comparatively low investments in environmental protection could also be due to the fact that, as explained, only minor environmental pressures are caused by active mining and > 99 % of mine waste can be classified as non-hazardous (16).

From a scientific point of view, political strategies on domestic mining should take into account the relatively low environmental pressures of active mining, illustrated by the pressure indicators mentioned above, and the progress in climate and environmental protection as well as resource efficiency. Here, the German mining industry has individual examples of excellence that have been accepted internationally. The European Aggregate Association, e. g., has repeatedly awarded sustainability prizes to German companies, and the Federal German Agency for Nature Conservation has recognized RWE’s recultivation of open-cast lignite mining for its biodiversity as part of the UN Decade on Biological Diversity. When formulating the German raw materials policy, it is also not taken into account that the domestic mining industry is committed to climate protection, e. g., by reducing energy consumption with the help of continuous conveyor belts. It has also proven itself as an energy producer by installing renewable energy systems on its properties.

4  Conclusion

Mines interfere with the natural spheres, and individual mines can cause significant impacts to the environment. However, environmental indicators based on a DPSIR model and derived from data from the Federal Statistical Office show that overall active mining in Germany

  • causes only small percentages of the total environmental pressures through land use, waste production, water extraction and greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions; and
  • causes smaller environmental pressures than many other public and non-public activities.

Global mining contributes less than 1 % of total land-use-related biodiversity loss, and in terms of biodiversity threats, mines and their post-mining activities provide opportunities for biodiversity, biotopes and habitats for many threatened and rare animals and plants. In addition, the German mining sector has proven for some time through individual examples of excellence and international recognition that environmental protection, nature conservation, species protection, renewable energies and resource efficiency can be combined with mining. In future, the German mining industry will have to remain a global role model for environmental stewardship and land restoration in the raw materials sector and move from individual examples of excellence to normality.

Federal politics is currently pursuing an ecological focus for domestic mining, although very high environmental standards already exist for German mining operations. Federal politics and especially the Federal Environment Agency should rather

  • comply with Germany’s international obligations for species protection;
  • design exemplary environmental standards for state-owned enterprises and use them as pioneers and leaders in an exemplary manner; and
  • develop and present to the public strategies, key issues papers, publications and websites on the environmental impact of active German mining that reflect scientific facts.


Aspects of this contribution were presented at the 15th Deutschen Naturschutzrechtstag 2023.

References / Quellenverzeichnis

References / Quellenverzeichnis

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Author/Autor: Univ.-Prof. PhD Bernd G. Lottermoser, Lehrstuhl für nachhaltige Rohstoffgewinnung, Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE), RWTH Aachen University (RWTH), Aachen/Germany