It is fair to say that mining has caused more damage to workers, local communities, and the environment than any other industry. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of mineworkers have died in mining accidents. Countless others have died from the pollution of air and water, frequently from poisons like arsenic, mercury, and lead. Others have died when protests against mines have turned violent. These facts have led some—including many in the church—to reject mining altogether. “We’d be better off without it,” is the prevailing sentiment.
This attitude has succeeded in stopping such projects as the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska, which sought to harvest one of the largest known copper deposits on the planet. Situated in the watershed above Bristol Bay, the plan to store mining waste materials, or tailings, behind large earthen dams was roundly condemned by environmental groups for its alleged threat to land and water ecosystems. After spending six years and more than half a billion dollars in preparation, Anglo-American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, walked away from the project in 2013. Rio Tinto, an even larger mining company, did the same six months later. In Peru, meanwhile, adamant local resistance led Newmont, the world’s second largest gold miner, to walk away from its Conga mining project after spending $1.2 billion. Resistance to mining is intense.
The problem is, we all need mining. It’s useful to remind ourselves that everything we touch throughout the day is either grown or extracted from the earth. My car, my telephone, my kitchen table, my watch, my refrigerator—all depend on mining. The same is true for the most basic prerequisites of well-being: housing, water and sewer systems, hospitals, schools, all of it. Consider the humble refrigerator. It is one of the first purchases poor families make when their community gets electricity. Those who simply “oppose all mining” are oblivious to their own dependence on minerals. They still want to have a smart phone and want to keep their milk cold. They rely on mining for copper and aluminum electric lines in nearly every part of their lives, something that won’t change even when the world moves to renewable energy sources for its electricity generation.
We don’t have to mine all the metals we use. Recycling is critical, which is a good thing, since the substances we mine are not renewable resources. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, recycling accounts for approximately 50 percent of total annual U.S. usage of many basic metals, including aluminum, copper, magnesium, and nickel. And there’s room for improvement. The United States now recycles more than two-thirds of all aluminum drink containers, but this means we’re still putting about $1 billion worth of aluminum cans into landfills every year. End-consumer recycling of aluminum represents only 24 percent of the total value of aluminum used nationally. Simpler lifestyles can reduce that demand, but mining will still be needed.
So what we need is responsible mining. Mining will always cause damage to the environment, it will always scar the earth; but in many cases reclamation and re-vegetation can largely restore the affected areas. We need mines that do not threaten the quality of the air and water and that don’t impoverish the people who live nearby. Indeed, mines should improve the lives not only of employees and their families, but of all the people who live around them, and should do so both during and after the operating lifetime of the mine.
Christian faith requires our commitment to these goals. Private ownership of land has received theological endorsement throughout Christian history, with the understanding that everything that is owned carries, as John Paul II put it, a social mortgage. This is particularly true for valuables below the ground. Most people recognize that harvesting these regional or national endowments carries a greater social obligation than the killing of a deer or the picking of wild fruits for daily food. So in addition to the legal requirements of land ownership (a mining project starts with buying the land from current owners), there must be a debt paid to the larger community, typically through taxes and royalties.