In the last few years, our business has worked on exploration projects and mine sites in approximately 25 different states. Alaska to Hawaii, California to New York, our trucks and equipment have touched many parts of this country. We have drilled for Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron, Zinc, Lithium, Niobium, Molybdenum, Nickel, Titanium, Scandium, Platinum, Palladium, Cobalt, Uranium, and other metals that I cannot remember, spell, or pronounce–but that is okay because I am not a geologist. Through all of our adventures, there are two constant elements, at least for me, no matter where we work in this country that hold true:
1. Geologists are who we work for, and I do not understand the terms they use, or the language they speak. I cannot even nod my head and attempt to look like I know what they are saying, they see right through me.
2. A good percentage of the anti-mining crowd in 21st Century America is either hypocritical, misinformed, but most likely both, as the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle.
About a month ago, we kicked off a project at a historic Zinc mine in California that operated from 1942-1945, during the height of World War II. One morning, as I was sitting in a coffee shop in Mariposa working on my computer, a gal tapped me on my shoulder. She had noticed my backpack, with our company name on it. If you are someone who knows me, you know that I enjoy good banter, so I listened as she spoke to me on how mining is terrible, toxic, unregulated, unnecessary, not needed, etc. Towards the end of the 20 minute lecture, she informed me of how proud she was of her new Tesla car, and the sustainability of this vehicle as it does not rely on gasoline, and simply runs on electricity, hence making this vehicle not have a natural resource footprint.
At that moment I was completely shocked as I tried to figure out how someone who was fairly competent could possibly think their automobile was manufactured, maintained, and operated without natural resources. The only thing that was able to come out of my mouth was “Cobalt.” Although Cobalt is just a small portion of the many metals involved in the manufacturing, maintenance, and operation of a Tesla, it was the best response I had. Cobalt is an obscure metal that is not well known by most folks. Cobalt is one of the most strategic metals when it comes to the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries. The problem with Cobalt is that approximately 60% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Why is this a problem? Because the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that over 40,000 children, ages 4-10 years old are working in DNC Cobalt mines. Of those 40,000 children, approximately 10,000 are working in “artisanal” mines, where they mine Cobalt in standing toxic water, by hand, and without footwear. The children work up to 12 hour days, are exposed to water containing toxic mercury, are provided no respiratory protection or other kinds personal protective equipment, and endure back breaking work even by adult standards as they grind, wash, and bag Cobalt ore by hand. Once we moved past this, she did some fact checking on her smart phone (don’t even get me started on phones), and realized much of what I had told her could be verified with a high confidence interval, so we moved onto what makes her car work.
Tesla vehicles need to have the battery charged in order for the vehicle to move. For those who do not know, electricity is required to do this. I was amazed as once again, my new friend did not have a concept of how electricity is produced. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, approximately 17% of our electricity comes from renewable sources (hydro, wind, solar, etc.), which is a good thing that I fully support. However, the other approximate 83% comes from natural gas (32%), coal (31%), and nuclear (20%). Using simple mathematics, with all things equal, 83% of the time when a Tesla vehicle is charging, the electricity is coming from natural resources that are either primarily drilled (natural gas) or mined (coal, uranium, and plutonium). After I had made this point, and I could see the wheels start turning in my friends mind.
The 21st Century American is completely dependent on natural resources whether they choose to realize it or not. The issue I have with the 21st Century Anti-Mining American is that in my experience, they have a micro-understanding of the full life cycle of the products and services they are using and the inputs that go into these products. They do not look overseas at the countries that produce these inputs and the atrocities these countries commit both in regard to human health and safety and to the environment. This individual will focus on a particular geography that they are passionate about, and will do everything they can to stop a potential exploration project from progressing into the mine planning phase. This is not just a localized problem in Minnesota in regard to potential copper/nickel mining in the Rainy River Watershed, it is a problem everywhere in this country, anytime an exploration project gets too close to becoming a mine. Speaking of the Rainy River Watershed, our friends to the north in Ontario have a number of active gold mining operations on the Hudson Bay Watershed, this is the watershed that the Rainy River Watershed dumps into. The Canadians have been actively mining this area since 1949. The newest gold mine to open in Ontario is the Rainy River Mine in September of 2017. This mine is approximately 40 miles Northwest of International Falls.
I have had dozens of conversations like the one above over the last few years with folks in many different parts of the country. The one thing I will say about the 21st Century Anti-Mining American is that they are organized, well-funded, convincing, and do an excellent job with educational outreach to spread and get what they believe to be true out to the public. At the end of the day, I don’t know if hypocritical, misinformed, or both is the right classification for the anti-mine groups. However, what I do believe is this: if the 21st Century Anti-Mining American truly cared about human health and safety, and if they truly cared about the environment, they would do one of two things. One would be to live a life without mining and manufacturing, which is more or less impossible. The other, which makes the most sense for the most reasons (human health, environmental health, economics), is to support mining and manufacturing in America. It is pretty tough to buy products that are “Made in America” when we are not even given the opportunity to mine the raw materials needed to make it happen.