I am, obviously, fascinated by mines. I’m no longer exactly awed by them, but I am glad when I can help others feel awe, as Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan did after reading my 2013 Pacific Standard feature about Bingham Canyon Mine, “The New Bronze Age”. My hope is that awe will give way to excited curiosity and finally a sober grasp of what these mines represent: the inevitable consequence of a growing, increasingly wealthy and technology-dependent human population. That was my path. I think it’s a wise one, and I hope to lead others down it.
The reason I think it’s a wise path is foreshadowed in some important but underreported developments over the past few months regarding the proposed Pebble copper mine.
Pebble, in southwest Alaska, would be colossal by every measure. The verified ore deposits are worth half a trillion dollars. It contains at least 80 billion pounds of copper—about $250 billion worth at today’s price—and an equal treasury of molybdenum, gold, silver, palladium, and ultra-rare, ultra-valuable rhenium (it makes jet engines work). It’s by far the largest, richest single mine in development in the world. If fully realized, it would physically and financially dwarf Bingham Canyon, the biggest and most productive manmade hole on earth. And like all mines of its species, it would support some of the most basic and vital industries: electricity generation and delivery, construction, automaking, tooling and dies, oil extraction and refining, aerospace.
On the flip side, the Pebble mine would produce one of the biggest toxic-waste sites on earth—in its largest potential configuration, as much as 10 billion tons of rock and slurry, rich in sulfuric acid and dissolved metals like lead and arsenic. This waste material, called tailings, is an unavoidable consequence of processing copper ore and exposing the byproduct to water—to rainfall and snow. According to Pebble documents filed with the state of Alaska, the mines tailings would be stored (as at most mines) behind huge dams—one of them, at 2 miles long and 700 feet high, the largest tailings dam ever constructed. The tailings dams would lie in the watershed of Bristol Bay, the most important chinook salmon fishery in the world, and a dam failure would be an environmental and economic catastrophe. (Our Bristol Bay, an organization that opposes Pebble, has a summary of its concerns here.)
Which brings us to the events of the past several months. They boil down to these: The EPA stated its intent to block the Pebble mine unilaterally, using a rarely-invoked power granted it under Clean Water Act. The mine’s developers lost their remaining major partner, mining giant Rio Tinto, which walked away from more than half a billion dollars of investment. And the mine’s supporters, including several power Republican members of Congress, vowed to fight the EPA and even strip it of its power.
In short: some very big players made some very big moves that will have very big consequences, for the Pebble mine itself, for other proposed mines around the world—which are now more attractive to developers—for American environmental law, and, of course, for the magnificent and vulnerable Alaskan wilderness. Quite literally, for our land.
But unless you follow Pebble specifically, or you live in Alaska, odds are you’ve never read a single story about this.
That’s one reason I believe it is wise for civilians to understand the mining industry: because it involves big players whose far-off decisions have enormous consequences for everyone and every thing downstream from their seats of power.
But I think it’s wiser still simply not to hold mines in awe—not to grant them that god-like power and remove. For this reason: Because they exist for and at the beckoning of regular people like you and me. They don’t exist at a remove, and they aren’t machinae ex deus. They exist because we demand what they provide.
Economic realities and EPA regulations can and do stop the building of a mine now and then, but if the sight of Bingham Canyon or the specter of Pebble fills you with dread, that’s no comfort. Another mine in a other land will takes its place—and the process will continue until there are fewer of us on this planet, or we decide to consume a lot less of its resources.
Image: Ando Hiroshige, Rough Sea at Naruto in Awa Province, 1855.