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What (copper) mine do you support?

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Sean Smith
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.

In 2017 the U.S. consumed 1.85 million tons of unmanufactured copper, equating to the average American using 8.5 pounds of copper per year. That number includes only unmanufactured copper; it does not include the copper in electronics, vehicles, and other goods manufactured outside the United States. Most of our electronics are made overseas, particularly in east and southeast Asia. Those products, including the copper inside them, are then imported into the United States.

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 10/01/2018 - 10:08 am.

    The issue is not simply “copper mining” but doing so in sulfide-bearing rock in a WATER ENVIRONMENT.

    Anyone who has studied the facts and where it has been done before will oppose this mining and the containment it requires. These torrential rains we are seeing now should be a red flag. The containment structures inevitably overflow when deluge rains, just as last February’s IRRRB managed containment failure destroyed the spawning grounds in streams and lakes adjoining it.

    Duke Energy’s coal ash with all its heavy metals have escaped their overflowing containments contaminating North and South Carolina’s waters for millenia yet to come.

    Nobody should be allowed to trade the health of this huge watershed, for profits. The mining company cannot guaranty their activities won’t permanently poison Minnesota waters all the way to Lake of the Woods.

    The world has plenty of dry-land sites that do not support the flora and fauna of these lands and waters.

  2. Submitted by Terry Beyl on 10/01/2018 - 11:24 am.

    This is well written and expresses my view as well.

    Urban Minnesotans want the benefits of mining, but want to stop mining – no matter what it does to the economy of greater Minnesota. They want the benefits of farming, but don’t support policies that support small family farms. They want the benefits of small business in small towns, but don’t want policies to support them. As long as the metro has the high paying jobs, jobs with benefits, freeways and light rail, and their trash is picked up and dumped out of sight, all is right with the world.

    Oh, and I have discovered that urban Minnesotans are ardent environmentalists when it comes to rural Minnesota and the rest of the world. However, they are more than happy to put up with environmental harmful urban problems as: freeways, large stadiums, polluted lakes and rivers, mass transit to white suburbs – rather than to poor neighborhoods, etc.

    I wonder if those in the metro would be willing to give up their jobs and economic wellbeing if it meant helping heal the environment?

    • Submitted by richard owens on 10/01/2018 - 12:21 pm.

      The choice is false one. The differences between where people live has NOTHING to do with it.

      This is a science question and a science answer.

      Politicizing it will not change anything except the method of finding the right answer. Maximization of net profits in the short run is the only method short-term thinking provides.

      Risk management is what proponents must demonstrate, with solutions that can be proven to protect the watershed and its future.

      • Submitted by Terry Beyl on 10/01/2018 - 03:49 pm.

        It is not about a right answer or a wrong answer. Its about an economy that works for EVERYONE throughout the State – not just a few in the metro.

        Science matters. But unfortunately, so does politics. Fortunately, so do jobs. So do wages and benefits. Where people live also matters. Its time that is recognized in Minnesota.

        • Submitted by richard owens on 10/01/2018 - 05:14 pm.

          Imagine Lake of the Woods without any game fish.

          Imagine Lake Vermilion poisoned with sulfuric acid and the muck borne of rock ground to a consistency of talcum power, released as sludge into the flowage.

          Imagine groundwater that is not potable.

          Imagine these two watersheds of breathtaking beauty that you cannot buy anywhere at any price.

          Imagine that RURAL people like me who do not live in the Metro love our Minnesota outdoors and its blessings.

          Yes it is a choice. It should be the RIGHT choice.

  3. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/01/2018 - 11:26 am.

    I’m trying to be amenable to the author’s argument. It seems to be this:

    1. We have to get it somewhere. Why not here, where regulations and worker’s rights are stronger?

    2. Demand corporations raise their prices on the products we buy so we can enjoy those products without the guilt of knowing it polluted someone else’s land, and/or employed them at slave wages.

    #1 is a common argument which makes some sense. I do not really believe that our environmental regulations and worker’s rights are particularly strong, especially compared to any other first-world country.

    Regardless, one might think #2 is a stretch, but hear me out. “Tory, the author isn’t saying companies should raise their prices. He’s just saying we should demand they source their materials from responsible places like Minnesota.”

    That’s just it – that DOES mean a price increase. It’s the same logic that applies to putting tariffs on countries that don’t behave the way we want them to. Regardless of the actual effectiveness of such policies, in a capitalist economy, companies ALWAYS have the incentive to have the lowest costs and the highest profit. Take organic food for example – you might think, well there’s a good example of a market for people willing to pay more for better quality products. If you actually read about that industry (or have family in horticulture, as I do), you will know that the whole thing is a sham. The definition of organic has been watered down so much that unless you buy locally, it’s completely meaningless. So this idea that we can just “vote with our wallet” on the companies that produce iPhones and TVs is even more laughable, because – guess what? None of those companies are in Minnesota, and all of them have integrated global supply chains. If they were to do something like this, they’d go out of business.

    Now you might say, “but what if we do that with copper – just buy locally, from people we trust?” Frankly, given the historical evidence around the mining industry in Minnesota, I don’t trust these people to treat their workers or our natural resources in an ethical manner.

    And neither do the people of Minnesota. Upwards of 70% of Minnesotans are against sulphide mining in the boundary waters. Why? Not simply because they’re wishy-washy blue state bleeding heart libruls – but because the costs outweigh the benefits. That’s it! You want to live in a democracy, you have to practice what you preach. We don’t want it here.

    Here’s an idea – since everyone around the world (and the rest of the country I suppose) is mining and drilling and taking out all the resources they can without regards to the costs – why don’t we do something different in Minnesota? Why don’t we leave it in the ground, since we’re one of the most prosperous places in the United States already – and when all the other countries and states are out of copper and prices are through the roof, THEN we can talk about mining. Or maybe not, since we’ll be one of the only places left with an intact environment that people will want to live in and visit.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/01/2018 - 03:04 pm.

    Zinc batteries will end this discussion…recycling rare minerals more throughly will end this discussion…conservation will end this discussion…I am frankly tiers of this ridiculous nimby characteration. The same people who are against mining here are against mining generally anwhere, stand with worker rights and support conservation and reuse. The author is engaging in distraction and namecalling without any basis except false accusation.

  5. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 10/01/2018 - 03:26 pm.

    Something missing from this commentary: international mining conglomerates are behind the copper-nickel sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota. PolyMet, a penny-stock Canadian company, is being underwritten by Glencore, a Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company. Twin Metals is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean Antofagasta. And Teck, whose deposit lies between the above two, is being held liable for polluting the Upper Columbia River in Canada. All of these major companies have dismal environmental and/or human rights records. Add to this Minnesota’s lack of requiring the taconite mines to meet environmental and water quality standards and you can see what’s coming down the line if sulfide mining gets permitted in the state. In fact, Minnesota’s legislature has been busy trying to reduce sulfate standards and environmental assessment requirements ahead of mining expansion.
    What is also missing in this commentary is any mention of responsible consumerism. We could all do better in reducing our use of extraneous electronics and other throw-away gadgets, in demanding more durable and efficient products, in demanding an increase in recycling, and demanding efficient public transportation to help unclog our highway systems. Our current market system is unsustainable based on world population. Mining as many metals as possible for short term profit is part of the problem, not a solution.
    Minnesota has much to lose by the political commandeering of the permitting of PolyMet, which would open the door for a sulfide mine district in the headwaters of two major watersheds. Our clean waters and a healthy environment are natural resources of extreme importance for those of us who live here and those who will follow us.

  6. Submitted by William Hansen on 10/01/2018 - 04:54 pm.

    It strikes me as arrogant to assume that only American consumers have an impact on what is done in other countries.

  7. Submitted by Max Millon on 10/02/2018 - 01:46 pm.

    NIMBY is bad, got it. That’s why we should take advice about how to use the natural resources found within our state’s most precious and iconic wilderness from a ‘mining professional’ from Washington who works for a construction company?

    I find it more than a little ironic that Sean finds us caring about our the protection of our local environment as ‘NIMBY’ but that him serving on the board of his local Land Trust, which protects land, is somehow different. My guess is that if Polymet jumped ship to the Nisqually Valley that Sean would be a little less condescending and arrogant and a little more understanding of the concerns of his fellow citizenry.

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