Our consumer aspriations are driving mining destruction

29/4/2010 Guardian Every time someone pushes the on-button on an electronic device, there is an expectation that the unit will power up quickly and display images in vibrant color.There is the further expectation, especially when using electronic
devices for communications such as email access, web downloading, and texting
that the response time will be immediate. We live in an age of technological
arms races in which manufacturers gain market edge by creating products that are
faster, have more applications, have a broader network reach, and generally do

The processing capacity of digital electronic devices doubles about every two
years (Moore’s Law), and this capacity increase is enabled by an expanded use of
elements. For example, computer chips made use of 11 major elements in the 1980s
but now use about 60 (two-thirds of the periodic table!). And the electronics
sector isn’t alone. Engine turbine blades for aircraft are made of alloys of a
dozen or so metals; motors and batteries of green-technology hybrid vehicles
depend on several of the rare earths; advances in medical imaging have come
about by the unique band gaps of elements such as gadolinium. It seems that
there are no limits to what the imagination can create except for the fact that
many of the metals are globally rare and, given the nature of current
technology, non-substitutable.
As we clamor for the latest gadgets and products, our increasing dependency on
rare metals to support modern technology carries certain responsibilities and
ethical obligations. More than ever, we need to understand how our technological
demand for elements from the entire periodic table is linked to the
environmental consequences of global extraction. This issue is often overlooked
in policy decisions because we fail to appreciate the inextricable connectedness
between global locations where technology is manufactured and used and the
locations that physically provide the key elements.
A case in point is the “mother lode” deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum in
Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as the Pebble Mine, which a consortium of mining
companies is seeking to develop. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the
current U.S. and global “reserve base” for these metals. This is the quantity of
metal in ore deposits that might someday be mineable, even if not economically
promising at present. There are various estimates for the mineable contents of
the Pebble Mine, but all are very large (as shown in this chart).
The Pebble Mine deposit would dramatically increase the domestic reserves of
copper and gold and would vault the United States into the position of being the
world’s largest repository of mineable molybdenum. Gold is an investment vehicle
and jewelry metal, of course; but it also is close to irreplaceable as an
interlayer constituent in printed wiring boards in electronics. Copper is the
principal metal used for conducting electricity in power-grid distribution
systems, residential wiring, and computers, and in motors that do everything
from raise automobile windows to rotate machinery. Molybdenum is an
irreplaceable constituent of the stainless steels used in surgical instruments,
a variety of other medical equipment, and chemical and pharmaceutical
In most of these applications there are no suitable substitute materials,
especially if loss of performance is to be avoided. Reserves such as the Pebble
Mine have certain strategic implications for the United States as well, as there
is a tendency for countries to hoard their own reserves of rare metals.
The confounding situation for the Pebble Mine is that it is situated in the
headwaters of Bristol Bay, and the Bristol Bay region is home to five species of
salmon that are among the last unthreatened stocks in the Pacific Northwest.
Salmon are known for their mass migrations from the ocean to natal streams where
they breed and subsequently die. In this region of the Pacific Northwest, salmon
comprise 92 percent of the diet of the 300 to 400 resident killer whales, and
salmon carcasses are also important food resources for terrestrial species such
as grizzly bears and eagles. A large run of 20 million sockeye in the Bristol
Bay region can yield as much as 5.4 x 107 kilograms of body tissue to the natal
streams and surrounding riparian zones after the fish spawn and die, thus
providing 2.4 x105 kilograms of phosphorus, 18 x 106 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.7
x 106 kilograms of calcium, and other elements that are important nutrients in
sustaining the health and functioning of whole watersheds. For comparison, this
nutrient input is equivalent to the amount of fertilizer used to support 140,000
acres of intensive corn production in the U.S. Midwest.
It is small wonder then that local and international environmental groups have
initiated efforts to halt the development of the mine based on the need to
preserve one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas on the planet.
Such efforts have long been regarded as an ethical position of high merit. Yet,
geological reserves like those in Bristol Bay are equally rare globally. So if
the ethical environmental position forces mining activity elsewhere, then the
rationale for wilderness protection in Bristol Bay becomes murkier, especially
if the mining occurs in places where the standards of environmental protection
are weaker.
For example, unchecked acid drainage from waste rock and mine tailings at the
Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea have seriously compromised the
Kawerong-Jaba river system there, and governments in northwest Pakistan have
pursued a policy of harassment and coercion of the local populace with the
intention of developing a very large gold-copper deposit. Beyond the social and
ethical implications of these situations, the use of cyanide for gold extraction
is a common environmental challenge in regions where mining is not well
The potential for displaced environmental damages means that a policy favoring
ecosystem protection at the expense of mining in Bristol Bay should be obligated
to consider the global implications of that decision by answering the question:
Where else in the world will the mining be done, and what environmental damages
will be passed to other parts of the world? Alternatively, any policy that
favors mining must explain how fishing pressure on other, already declining
salmon stocks globally will be affected if the Bristol Bay stocks decline, and
even whether declining stocks encourage alternative production systems such as
salmon aquaculture that could inflict additional and widespread damage to marine
Local political tugs-of-war between wilderness preservation and mining such as
those seen in Bristol Bay address the issue at the wrong scale. The consequence
is that the true root causes of these problems are not identified. Anyone who
relies on modern electronic technology and favors the development of green
technology — environmentalists and technocrats alike — has a shared link to
environmental damages ensuing from mining. An appropriate ethical stance then
would be to question whether it is appropriate to protect nature and force
resource extraction to other parts of the world where standards of environmental
protection may be considerably weaker. Alternatively, if we do not wish to
inflict damages elsewhere in the world, are we willing to forego the benefits of
modern technology? And ultimately, of course, the livelihoods of local residents
who rely on employment in the resource extraction industries — whether fisheries
or mining — lie in the balance.
The Pebble Mine project is merely the latest example, but a particularly clear
one, of the global linkages that create ethical and social conundrums. If modern
society is to achieve sustainability in a resource-limited world, these are
issues that must be explicitly addressed and overcome.

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