Social media in Minnesota and the surrounding area was awash in commentary regarding the Trump administration’s decision to discontinue a comprehensive review of the potential effects of mineral exploration and mining in parts of the Superior National Forest. The response was a resounding Not In My Backyard (NIMBY). OK. No drilling (and by extension mining) in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters. Exclude the NorthMet deposit in the Lake Superior watershed while you are at it, because that is sacred too. Now comes the part that no one wants to discuss or deal with: Where will Minnesotans get these minerals? Because, whether or not they admit it, they are supporting mining.
Mining is fundamentally driven by consumption, and for most of history mines were located near the consuming populace. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and exploding during the era of globalization, mining has increasingly been disconnected from its consumers. Globalization spawned complex supply chains stretching the globe, with the end consumers having little knowledge or stake in the origin of the minerals they use. For consumers in developed countries, that meant an easy and carefree avenue to outsource their environmental footprint.
Furthermore, of the unmanufactured copper consumed in the U.S., the United States Geological Society estimates that 33 percent is imported. The three largest sources of imported copper are Chile, Canada, and Mexico. If the regulations in the U.S./Minnesota are not sufficient to protect the environment, how can Americans spend their money supporting mining operations in countries with more lenient environmental (and social) requirements?
It is time for U.S. consumers, including those in Minnesota, to involve themselves in responsible sourcing of materials. It should not be acceptable to simply say “not here because this place is special to me.” There will always be a special place to someone; they may just not have the same voice or ability to interject that Americans do. American consumers should be proactive and demand that the products they buy meet the standards that they insist upon for their own backyards. Take the mantra “the customer is always right” and demand that workers’ rights, environmental standards, and corporate social responsibility meet your expectations. Mining would not exist without consumers and, if forced, will meet the demands of consumers.
Between established technologies (internet, CSR reporting) and emerging technologies (blockchain/distributed ledgers, IoT) we have the tools to map the complex supply chain on which we so heavily rely. What has been shrouded in the fog of international trade is on the cusp of accountability. Consumer demands can influence for-profit companies (including mining companies) more impactfully than regulation. Hit them where it hurts! Demand that each product you buy comes with a statement of origin, intermediate refining, manufacturing, and transportation. It won’t be pretty; in fact, it may involve activities you consider unethical, whether socially, environmentally, or both.
Fight for the Boundary Waters. Fight for the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Also fight for those who do not have the same voice you do.
Fight for those who cannot fight for their own land. Do not accept the outsourcing of your environmental footprint because your consumption has an impact. Force the companies you support financially to be accountable to your expectations, both domestically and internationally. If it isn’t acceptable in your backyard, it shouldn’t be in someone else’s.
Sean Smith is a mining professional focused on furthering the responsible sourcing of the minerals used in everyday life. He lived and worked on the Iron Range for a few years before moving to Washington state. Smith has an undergrad degree in supply chain and a master’s degree in mining engineering, and is a board member for the Nisqually Land Trust.
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