The Problem with Mining

I’m on the email list for Friends of the Earth, which means that I receive frequent messages imploring me to donate money to save national parks, protect bees, and fight the fossil fuel and mining industries. One recent email mentioned the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, appreciating Friends of the Earth members for their role in flooding the EPA with comments opposing the project. Public pressure convinced the EPA to back off on its efforts to reverse a plan that restricted mining in the region. The email expressed concern, however, that if the developers raised the funds they needed, mining could still proceed. It closed with the statement, “Stop the mining industry from wiping out the world’s largest salmon fishery with toxic waste! Donate now!”

The Pebble Partnership, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals, wants to use the land to mine copper and gold. It is promoting the project as a way to provide minerals for the green technology sector and employ Alaska residents. The website points out that copper wiring is an essential element in electricity grids, solar panels, and magnetic coils for wind turbines. In response to public concerns, the Pebble Partnership has shrunk the scope of the project so that it covers fewer acres of land, and the latest proposal eliminates a cyanide plant (cyanide is commonly used in gold mining). The company claims to be dedicated to “environmentally responsible resource development that respects cultural values and develops economic opportunities for Southwest Alaska.”

While that is better than irresponsible mining that exploits local populations, there must be a reason that Bristol Bay residents and commercial fishermen overwhelmingly oppose the Pebble Mine project and that even the Trump administration agreed that giving it the green light was not wise. I don’t buy that its most recent version minimizes environmental impact. Minimizing impact would mean not mining at all. Yes, the project would create jobs in mining, but at the expense of those in fishing. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with almost 40 million fish harvested in 2017. A mining operation, even a carefully controlled one, would pose a risk to salmon populations and potentially to those who eat the salmon.

Promoting oil drilling and mining on public lands is nothing new. It has been going on since the days of the wild west, when the sparsely populated western states seemed to offer an infinite supply of resources to be extracted. The General Mining Act, passed in 1872, still governs mining operations for hardrock minerals (including copper and gold). The law gives citizens or corporations open access to mining on public lands, so long as they file a claim and pay an absurdly small fee of $5 per acre plus an annual $100 holding fee for each 20-acre plot. The government collects no royalties on any minerals extracted. It can, however restrict mining in specific regions, such as environmentally sensitive areas or designated National Parks.

Demand for metals is not going to disappear. It will only increase in coming years as industries from construction to consumer electronics grow worldwide. The only question is where to get the metals that society demands. If virgin metals are to be mined, the locations of mines must be carefully considered, as do the safety processes in place. Some argue that opening mines in the US both provides local jobs and stops multinational mining companies from expanding mining operations in countries where safeguards to protect workers and local communities are less stringent or nonexistent.

There are, however, alternatives to extracting more metal ores from the Earth. Recycling is one option, although even optimal recycling rates won’t create enough materials to satisfy demand. Urban mining—recovering metals from abandoned mines, industrial waste, and landfills—represents another avenue. After talking with people in the industry, I’m convinced that it is the right strategy to recover the various metals needed to produce the next generation of smart phones and computers. As for all the miles of copper electrical wiring? That is a bigger challenge, and one that may not be able to be overcome without continuing to mine copper. But the most responsible mining companies, those that seek to limit the damage they do, stand the greatest chance of succeeding.