OpEd

Story published: 02-05-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Mining: Nothing that glitters is gold

By Frances Lamberts

In the preface to “Roughing it,” his account of his travels in the American west in the 1860s, Mark Twain notes the narrative’s inclusion of the “curious episode of the silver- [and gold] mining fever in Nevada,” in which he himself participated.

He came to do so, he recounts, convinced by a newspaper letter advertising the fabulous wealth in precious ore with which “the intestines of our mountains are gorged.”

Though difficult to get at this wealth, “an energetic San Francisco capitalist” had taken over a nearby mine. His company calculated that shipping the mined and processed products to Europe would reap such prices that “a ton of the raw ore will net them $1,200.”

In our own time, vast amounts of earth and ore (the metal bearing rock) are stripped from the land through mining.

As documented by Gary Gardner in “Mind over Matter,” mining alone now exceeds natural erosion by rivers, each year.

Especially in precious-metals extraction, mind-boggling amounts of earth movement are necessary and huge amounts of waste result. From 220 tons of overburden and ore only 1 kilogram of gold results, for example, or 1 ton of copper.

The December 2012 issue of Audubon magazine reports that a transnational mining consortium is currently looking to open the continent’s biggest gold and copper stripmine in the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska.

In the bay and its major rivers, all the Pacific salmon species thrive, along with steelhead trout and many other commercial fish species.

Half the world’s salmon sales originate there, bringing $310 million annually to the state. Salmon fishing, alone, there supports nearly 10,000 full-time jobs.

The “Pebble Deposit” being eyed for mining underlies an area so vast that more than 20 state or federal parks, game and wildlife refuges, a national monument and other protected lands would be affected.

The chemicals-laced waste (tailings) following separation of the metals from the ore contains sulfuric acid, cyanide, mercury and other highly toxic substances. In volume so vast that, were it stacked above ground it would make a 30-mile long column 1,000 feet wide and 1,000 feet high, this waste is to be placed in unlined holding ponds scattered across the region.

The consortium promises employment for 1,000 when the mine is operational.

In its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment for this proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency predicted major damage to fish and wildlife, even if no seepage or spills, dam or impoundment failures or other accidents ever occurred.

No wonder that, as the author notes, the mine is opposed by more than 1,000 businesses, hunting, angling and commercial fishing groups, chefs and restaurant owners nationwide, a former Alaska senator and other officials and, in overwhelming numbers, its citizens.

Twain’s insight from experiencing the “energetic capitalist’s” mining project results: Nothing that glitters is gold.

The Pebble Mine lacks even a glitter. One should hope the EPA will follow the citizens’ lead and its own assessment, and reject any permits for it.