What are mine tailings exactly? What’s the deal with acid mine drainage? Is ‘responsible mining’ really possible?
These were some of the questions I had for an engineer friend who has worked on mines in B.C. As a start to answering these questions, this friend pointed me to Mining America: the Industry and the Environment, 1800-1980.
I’m a literature major, so it may not be surprising that my reflexive response to taking a new role – in this case becoming an organizer in British Columbia with Salmon Beyond Borders – is to pick up a book. I like sinking in. Books give me more time to process information than news articles and scientific reports. So I was grateful for this book, which describes how people have perceived the American mining industry over the last 200 years, and in particular the industry’s impact on the environment. The author, Duane Smith, focuses on the United States of America, but I believe the themes apply in Canada as well. I don’t have a background in mining, but I found the book fascinating.
Three main points resonated with me:
1. Things have changed.
“The word environment would not have been recognized a century ago,” writes Smith.
He describes how miners and people in mining regions throughout the 1800s noticed effects – air filling with smoke, streams changing color, mountainsides being washed away with the development of hydraulic technology – but how rarely they labelled these changes as serious problems. People complained that the abandoned tools, piles of waste rock, and mountainsides stripped of trees for use in the smelters were unsightly, yes, but few voices rose loudly to raise concerns about the long-term health of the environment and people living nearby.
One man seeking to promote investment in his mining town talked about the level of arsenic in the air as beneficial for women’s complexions – totally without irony!
2. Things have stayed the same.
“The duty of government, in this earlier century [the 1800s], was not to regulate but to encourage development and to hand out unstintingly the natural resources and the public lands for private gain.”
“Not to regulate, but to encourage,” sounds to me like the exact description of the modern-day role of the government which was criticized and described in the British Columbia Auditor General’s May 2016 report, written after an investigation into the Mount Polley tailings dam failure. “To meet the provincial goals for new mines and mine expansions,” the report states, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministry of Environment, “are focusing on permit applications. As a result, there are few resources dedicated to the regulatory activities of monitoring.”
And even more recently, in February 2018, the B.C. provincial government announced a mining “task force” to advise the government on “measures it might implement to make B.C. the most attractive jurisdiction for investment in Canada.” It seems that encouraging development for private gain is still very much considered the “duty”of government.
3. Public opinion matters.
“As trite as it may sound, the buck does stop with the public. How much are we willing to pay, to sacrifice, and to accept in order to protect the environment?”
Smith describes how people in the later 1900s, from farmers to elected officials, began to push back against specific mining projects and to demand clean up and accountability from the mining industry. In spite of the industry's well-funded public relations campaigns and savvy lawyers, some projects were turned down and new regulations introduced. Even by the 1980s, when Smith concludes his historical survey, he feels confident stating, “Environmental stewardship is here to stay; only the form that it should take is a subject of debate.”
Engaging with mining is crucial, even if tricky. Mining has played a big role in the United States and Canada, and it will continue to play a role. Our job as citizens and residents is to take responsibility for grappling with questions such as: Where should mining take place? How should it be done? Who should benefit? And what are we willing to do to protect places we love?
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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