History shows copper mining has always been tricky business

Historian Jeff Manuel is an occasional contributor to this blog and today presents a fascinating historical take on the issue of nonferrous mineral mining in northeastern Minnesota.

Recent debate over possible nonferrous/copper-nickel mining in northeast Minnesota has largely framed the issue along the predictable jobs versus the environment divide. Although Minnesotans will ultimately have to decide this issue—and live with the consequences, positive and negative—I believe both sides would do well to look beyond northeast Minnesota and the history of iron ore mining. Low-grade copper mining has its own rich history that is instructive for those weighing the issue. Luckily, historian Timothy LeCain’s recent award-winning book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines that Wired America and Scarred the Planet, is available for anyone who wants a deep understanding of how modern copper mining evolved and what it has (and hasn’t) done to the environment.

LeCain’s book has several connections to the Iron Range. First, the history of open pit copper mining is closely connected to the history of open pit iron ore mining. After the Mesabi Range was opened in the late nineteenth century, western copper miners adopted the Mesabi’s open pit mining technology. The enormous steam shovels developed for the Mesabi allowed copper mines to dig their own giant open pits. Engineers in the low-grade copper mines then developed industrial-sized concentration and separation technology that could profitably mine ores as low as 2 percent copper. Copper technology soon flowed back to the Mesabi Range.

Edward W. Davis, the engineer who pioneered the early taconite process, modeled himself after copper magnate D. C. Jackling. When investors set up the Mesabi Iron Company to produce concentrated taconite in the 1920s, they installed Jackling as president. Many of the machines and principles used in taconite processing were adopted directly from low-grade copper mining. The tools and techniques to mine low-grade metals in enormous open pits and concentrate them developed through the interplay between iron and copper.

Second, and directly related to the current nonferrous mining debate, is LeCain’s argument that copper mining’s history is also a story of the unintended consequences that spring from a belief that modern technology can obliterate natural obstacles. Each new development in copper mining led to environmental problems that were unforeseen at the time. And each effort to fix those problems led to new complications.

When the first smelters killed cattle, crops, and residents, copper miners built a 300-foot stack to carry the poisonous smelter pollution into the atmosphere. When that stack failed to solve the problem, they built one twice as tall. The tall stack and its precipitators fixed this problem, but created new ones. For example, where should all the arsenic collected by the precipitators be deposited? The arsenic eventually found its way into treated lumber and, unfortunately, into ground water and human bodies. Every fix created its own new problems.

What makes LeCain’s history of copper mining so interesting (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) is that there is no easy villain to blame. Copper mining engineers genuinely worried about the environment, but they were convinced that science and technology could overcome any potential problems. As LeCain puts it, the environmental problems in western copper mining “stemmed not from a careless disregard for environmental problems but rather from a dangerous overconfidence in . . . abilities to fix these problems” (54). Yet LeCain acknowledges that modern society relies on the minerals produced in these mines. Few are willing to forego copper wiring and electricity. Neither a naive faith in science and technology nor an equally naive attempt to preserve a pristine landscape are useful ways of understanding the problem. Historians are loathe to predict the future, but copper mining’s past suggests that any possible nonferrous mining in northeast Minnesota will involve similar tradeoffs and lead to its own unintended consequences.

Jeff Manuel, a history professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, lives in St. Louis. He is working on a book based on his dissertation about the Iron Range’s recent history.

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