Copper and the Greener World Dilemma
By Bill Moore
When Bill Carter poisoned himself with lead and arsenic by eating fresh vegetables from his backyard garden in the old copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, he set out on a investigative journey to learn more about the 'metal that runs the world.'
It took around a century and several generations of miners to turn a mountain rich is copper ore in southeastern Arizona into a big, ugly hole in the ground called Lavender Pit (see photo above). Before the turn of the 20th century into the 21st, the mine was -- for now -- considered played out. Left behind was not only that big hole in the ground but an estimated 2,200 miles of tunnels underneath Bisbee. All that rock had to go somewhere and it did; to the surface creating enormous tailing piles visible from satellite images.
Across the nearby border with Mexico, barren 'landscapes' of powdery silica dust and poisonous turquoise tailing ponds of toxic metals from the largest copper mine in that country, Cananea, are also visible from space.
These are only two of the many copper mines carved into one of the richest copper ore fields in the world. They are also the silent witnesses to a serious environmental problem: that with that precious copper, the metal that runs the world, as author Bill Carter puts it, comes a serious ethical dilemma for those of us working for the increased electrification of the world's transportation and energy system. All those wind turbines and electric cars and high-speed trains and hybrid ferries require hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of copper. It doesn't come out of thin air, but solid rock.
Copper is ubiquitous. It's in the plumbing of our homes, the wiring in our walls, the windings of our electric motors, the fumigant in our deck lumber. It's in our cellphones, our tablets, our cameras, even our cooking utensils. Carter estimates the world consumes around 16 million tons of the green metal, with demand in the next decade expected to climb to 25 million tons.
To extract that much copper from its rock matrix, requires mining companies dig up many more billions of tons of rock usually laced, yes, with gold, but also other heavy metals from arsenic to uranium, most of which is usually left on the ground to slowly leach into the surrounding soil and aquifers.
This is just part of the story Carter tells in his personal account of how he inadvertently poisoned himself eating fresh vegetables from his home garden in Bisbee. His search takes him across the border to the Cananea mine, whose tailing dam just broke a few days before our interview, contaminating the drinking water of scores of villages down stream, forcing the Mexican government to truck in potable water for the people in the region. The little publicized Cananea breach was superseded just a day before by the more widely publicized breach of the Mount Polley tailing pond in British Columbia.
And while the shuttered Bisbee mine and the still active Cananea open pit mine play central roles in Boom, Bust, Boom - A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World, it is the threat posed by a planned mine in Alaska that represents the true dilemma facing modern society. Which is more important? Food and water or the metals upon which modern society depends, copper in particular.
The proposed Pebble mine is worth an estimated $500 billion and sits in a remote region of Alaska, that also happens to form the headwaters of the world's largest wild salmon run. Half of all the world's wild-caught salmon comes from the waters of Alaska's Bristol Bay and the rivers and tributaries that feed it. And at the head of that system would be, if built, the PEBBLE copper mine, considered one of the richest potential mines on the planet according to various mining company assays.
Given what happened at Mount Polley and Cananea in the last two weeks, it's a good thing the United States EPA has ruled that the proposed mine represents too great a threat to not only the ecosystem of the the region, but to the livelihood of the native peoples who have depended on the salmon run for more than 7,000 years. While its principle, deep pocket backer -- Anglo American -- has pulled its financial support from the project, all that copper ore represents a powerful attraction for mining companies, contends Carter, who visited the native communities surrounding the proposed mine, as well as the company executives pushing to open it.
My interview with Carter, who is now an Assistant Professor of Practice at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, is just over forty-minutes in length and can be listened to in its entirety using the embedded MP3 player below or downloaded for playback on your favorite MP3 device. The book, Boom, Bust, Boom - A Story of Copper, the Metal Than Runs the World and can be bought through Barnes & Noble or ordered online via Amazon.
I highly recommend it. It is a engaging journey of discovery.
Originally published: 02 Sep 2014
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