CHM 110 - CHEMISTRY AND ISSUES IN THE ENVIRONMENT

Back to Topic 6 | | Menu | | Lecture/Outline | | Issues


Why We Need to Mine for Minerals in a Responsible Fashion
Rob Vugteveen
Director, Asarco Mineral Discovery Center
1421 W Pima Mine Road
Sahuarita, AZ 85629

The United States (that's you and me) consumes a larger proportion of our world's resources than represented by our population. We also produce more goods and services than most, if not all, countries of the world as well, and many of these goods and services go outside our borders. While we are a net importer of many strategic metals, even copper, we are a net exporter of food. Our nation could not continue to have the enormous trade deficits (money and value going out to other countries) without developing the natural and human resources we have here.

Few democratic countries in the world have such a large proportion of government-owned land. This is particularly evident in the American West. Only 17% (about one-sixth) of Arizona can be privately held; the rest is controlled by various Federal, State, and Tribal agencies. If, for the sake of discussion, we say that mineral deposits are evenly distributed between private and government land (they're probably not, but we can discuss why in a minute) then as much as 83% of the mineral resources in this state can be "locked up" in so-called government land.

In the history of Arizona, only two-tenths of one percent (0.2%!) of the state's land area has ever been involved in mining activity. That leaves a vast majority for human and animal habitat, outdoor recreation, and preservation. In our human perspective, that 0.2% seems larger because a few of the individual operations are on a scale much bigger than most other human endeavors. When the tires on a mining truck are 11 feet tall, and the truck shop is as big as your neighborhood, and the pit is two miles across, it seems like the areas involved must be larger than 0.2%. But it isn't.

Let me return to that thought about the distribution of mineral deposits on government versus private land. When Western states were admitted to the Union, the Federal government took control of most land that was not already privately held. The land that was not already privately held was most likely in areas remote from existing civilization - mountains, forests, etc. Generally speaking, these areas were not as hospitable for civilization because they were isolated, rough, mountainous terrains, and they got that way because of geologic forces that pushed and bent and faulted those rocks into that form. These are the same geologic forces that create many of the mineral deposits that we seek. You just don't find copper deposits in the flat basins and valleys where people built cities and towns. So, a larger proportion of all the mineral deposits in the West are likely to have ended up on government land without any specific intent for that to happen.

No mining company advocates turning all government land into mining operations. Even with the proportions mentioned above, relatively little government land actually has mineral resources on or under it. However, because mineral deposits occur where they may, it would seem imprudent to close the relatively small amounts of land that do contain mineral resources.

A hundred years ago, Arizona wasn't even one of the United States, and our society viewed mining with a very different perspective than we do today. The value of the earth was seen in the mineral resources it contained, and little regard was given to the effects of extracting those minerals. Populations, particularly in the West, were relatively small, and the number of people adversely affected by mining operations was similarly low.

As populations grew, demand for minerals grew with it, and so did the number of people living near mining operations. By the end of World War II, mineral development and populations in the West were booming, but there was a growing awareness of the consequences ot the environment. The stage was set for a collision of values.

Mining companies that once were perceived as the providers of the earth's bounty for the betterment of civilization suddenly found themselves reviled as the earth's destroyers, sometimes for past practices long since abandoned. The surviving companies in the industry have often been held responsible for practices of companies that had long ago gone out of business. (As some view it, this is like holding you personally responsible for your grandfather's traffic violation because you now own his car.)

I wasn't even your age when this happened, so I cannot speak to the actual motivations, but perhaps seeing the turning tide of government and public attitudes, the industry began to look for ways to change its methodology and operate within a rapidly growing public appreciation for the environment. I know that the Asarco research facility in Salt Lake City was developing sulfur dioxide capture for smelters well before they were mandated by government environmental regulations. This was a costly investment, but it resulted in the production of a useful product, sulfuric acid, from a former waste gas, sulfur dioxide.

As a citizen, I want clean air and water and places to go for recreation and enjoyment of the natural beauty of this country. As a father, I want the best for my family in living standards, heathcare, learning opportunities, and quality of environment. As a miner, I know that most of those things require resources from the earth.

As a corporate citizen, Asarco wants to be a good neighbor as well. Mining companies are not faceless entities but are made up of fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters just like you who desire many of the same things we do for their families.

The United States government, as well as the Spanish and Mexican governments that held this area before it, established mineral development policies for the purpose of expanding their influence and control. There were benefits and consequences to those policies, both then and today.

Our Nation has been examining its mineral development policies for many years. We all need to consider the potential benefits and consequences of changes. What will those changes do to our dependence on foreign sources for raw materials? How will our local environments be affected? What are the environmental costs of the alternatives to mining? Can the United States be a leader in the development of environmentally responsible mining technology that can be used world-wide? Or, will we simply export the environmental problems to other countries whose economic pressures override environmental considerations? Is "not in my back yard" good enough for you?

Like it or not, we are a nation of consumers. The issues are complex, and the solutions are not simple. If you support the development of natural resources for the betterment of society, will you work within the industry to help it function in an environmentally sensitive way? If you decry the environmental consequences of consumerism, will you work to educate the public on their ownership and culpability in the problem?

No one likes to have the finger pointed at them and hear the words, "You are the problem!" Will you choose to live more simply to reduce your own dependence on natural resources and show others how they can follow your example? Will you, from your position of privilege (and as an American college student you are among the most privileged of the world), say to those who aspire to have what you do now that they must accept that the resources to better their lives have been shut off?

Well, I don't know about you, but those questions make me uncomfortable. I like my house, my car, my computer, my job. I wouldn't want to withhold those opportunities and blessings from anyone.

Often the question seems to be "what will it cost the industry to respond to this or that change." If I'm serious about responsible resource use, the question may more appropriately be: "What will it cost ME?"

 

 

Rob Vugteveen
Director, Asarco Mineral Discovery Center
1421 W Pima Mine Road
Sahuarita, AZ 85629