Mining’s public face is that the industry provides good jobs and vital resources to run our modern economy. Rarely seen and never promoted are the consequences of our addiction to mining and extraction. The massive scars and grotesque tailings mountains are seldom photographed or portrayed. Higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and cancer are inflicted upon local residents. The industry won’t boast that many mining jobs have dried up, due to automation and increased surface mining. Or that company profits mostly leave the local economies.
These are among the issues many mining (and fracking) communities face, across our nation. Do extractive operations bring a net economic benefit or a detriment to local communities? This is a legitimate and relevant question. What can we do? We can work to get money out of politics. We can push for more public input, for better regulations, and for their enforcement. And we can push for the phase-out of fossil fuels, to be replaced by clean renewable energy.
BERKELEY PIT, BUTTE, MONTANA
The Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine located in Butte, Montana. It is one mile long by a half-mile wide and almost 1800 feet deep. At one point, it was the largest copper pit in the US. Prior to its opening in 1955, many underground mines were active, but open-pit mining became far more economical and safer. Two communities and much of Butte’s east side was consumed by the pit’s expansion, which came to within four blocks of Butte’s center. The homes were either destroyed or moved to the southern end of town. Residents were compensated for their lost property.
When pit operations were ceased in 1982, water pumps in a nearby shaft were shut off. Groundwater began filling the pit, one foot per month. The highly acidic water is laden with dissolved metals such as copper, aluminum, cadmium, cobalt, iron, and zinc. At times, a metallic fog drifts into town. This lake has risen to within 150 feet of the groundwater table, which would pose a serious environmental problem, as the toxic water would flow back into the surrounding groundwater. A water treatment plant opened in 2019 to treat and divert existing pit water. The Berkeley Pit is part of the largest complex of Superfund sites in the US.
Birds that land in the pit perish by internal corrosion. In late 1995, at least 342 geese died, and in November 2016, several thousand snow geese died. To prevent bird fatalities, an observation station now overlooks the pit, equipped with scopes and spotlights. Personnel observe throughout the day and use sounding devices and guns to scare the birds away. A boat tours the lake to search for dead birds – many birds do perish and many are resuscitated.
KENNECOTT COPPER PIT, UTAH
The Kennecott Copper mine (also known as the Bingham Mine) is the second-largest copper producer in the US. It is the oldest open-pit copper mine in the US; during World War II, it provided about 30% of the copper used by the Allies. It also yields gold, silver, and molybdenum. The largest human-made excavation on Earth, the pit measures 2.75 miles wide and .75 miles deep and is visible from space. As the mine expanded, it consumed the town of Bingham, which ceased to exist in 1971. Changing hands several times over the years, the mine is now owned by Rio Tinto, the third-largest mining corporation in the world.
Kennecott is also the largest mine near an urban area in the world, the Salt Lake City metro area – so one million nearby residents are affected by the mine’s impacts. Approximately 80 square miles of groundwater is contaminated in the southwest portion of the valley – the world’s largest toxic plume. Significant remediation efforts are underway. The mine also contributes to air pollution in Salt Lake County. Salt Lake City consistently ranks in the top ten cities for bad air quality. The mine and its smelter are also a large source of heavy metal contamination to the area; the smelter alone releases over 6000 pounds of lead emissions per year. Toxic releases of selenium, copper, arsenic, zinc, lead, and cadmium have damaged ecosystems that support migrant bird populations. The massive tailings pond is at capacity – a proposed expansion would impact nearby wetlands.
In spite of this heavy impact, in December 2019 Rio Tinto announced plans to expand the mine’s extraction – even while Salt Lake County is out of compliance with EPA standards for PM10, PM2.5, and ozone. The airshed and valley residents cannot afford this expansion.
EL CHINO (SANTA RITA) MINE, SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
The Chino Mine (Spanish for “Chinaman”), is an open-pit copper mine located near Santa Rita, New Mexico. This huge mine was once the largest in the world and has been perhaps the oldest operational mine in the American southwest. It is the third oldest open-pit copper mine in the world, Kennecott being the oldest.
The town of Santa Rita was forced to move several times for the pit’s expansion. Shortly after the town moved in 1957, heavy rains washed boulders and mud into the new town-site. The town was abandoned once and for all in 1967, remaining only on the pages of history books.
MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL, EASTERN U.S.
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining used on summits or summit ridges of mountains, in the southern Appalachian Mountains, especially in West Virginia and Kentucky. This region is one of the richest ecosystems in North America.
MTR is one of the most destructive methods for extracting fossil fuels. Over 500 summits have been leveled, wrecking an area of land the size of Delaware. The overburden, removed to access coal seams, is dumped into streambeds, which pollutes waters downstream. Operations detonate 2,500 tons of explosives per day in the region, the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb every week. The blasts damage nearby homes and cover communities with toxic coal dust, burdening local residents with high rates of cancer and heart disease. Massive amounts of coal slurry (from processing) are held in hundreds of impoundment ponds throughout the region. Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land, but all too often the land is left stripped. Even with remediation, the land never returns to its formerly healthy condition.
Instead of a boon, MTR is detrimental to the region’s economy and to the well-being of the people. In West Virginia, surface mining accounts for only 1.2 percent of the jobs (many are hired from out of state). Automation has cut most mining jobs. The impacted counties are among the poorest in the nation, with high cancer, mortality rates, and health care costs.
BLACK THUNDER COAL MINE, POWDER RIVER BASIN, WYOMING
Wyoming’s Powder River Basin contains one of the largest coal deposits in the world. Black Thunder Mine is one of the largest mines in the world, providing 8 percent of US coal supply. This mine cranks out enough coal to load 25 miles of train cars per day. These coal trains fan out across the nation, even to the East Coast. As production has dwindled in mines across the US, this region now provides over 40 percent of the nation’s coal.
The combustion of Powder River Basin coal is responsible for almost 13 percent of the total US emissions of CO2 – the primary greenhouse gas that is quickly accumulating in our atmosphere. The buildup of greenhouse gases will cook us all if we do not phase out coal and other fossil fuels as soon as possible.
CASTLE MOUNTAIN GOLD MINE, CALIFORNIA
The Castle Mountain mine is located next to the Mojave National Preserve, near the Nevada border. The mine was operational from 1992-2003. It was not a successful venture and lost money, since the price of gold was down, even though it was California’s third-largest gold mine at the time.
It has become the norm for gold operators to dig huge open pits and to discard piles of waste rock – then to pour toxic cyanide over crushed ore rock to leach out the gold. When the depleted mines are abandoned, the steep-walled open pits often fill with polluted water.
In 2003, California enacted the nation’s toughest regulations on open-pit metallic mining, requiring that upon the termination of operations, the affected lands be “reclaimed to a usable condition which is readily adaptable for alternative uses and create no danger to public health or safety.” This requires backfilling open-pit metal mines, and that companies provide financial guarantees so taxpayers wouldn’t be stuck if the company defaults.
Operations at this mine are now being resumed under new ownership.