Navigating mining’s perilous boundary between enough and too much

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Today I have a new essay up with the Minnesota Reformer. It’s one that took a great deal of time and thought to write, and that leaves me yet unsettled. The title is “The troubled border between consumption and conservation.”

For two decades, we’ve watched northern Minnesota’s mining debate bob up and down in the churning waters of economic and political uncertainty. Readers know I’ve tried to use reason and caution in evaluating the matter. I eschew joining the divergent “camps” in the controversy, though I have made friends on both “sides,” such as they are.

It is impossible to read these stories, studies, and reports over this length of time without forming opinions and developing a point of view. While mine is a little different from the norm, today I talk about my views as they stand today, and the critical, all-important factor I see missing from the debate.

We talk a lot about whether copper-nickel mining can be done safely in a water rich environment. I am open to the idea that it is possible. However, more important factors include, first, whether mining these low grade ores now is necessary. Then we must ask whether we can trust the companies doing business with us. There are deeper questions here that are not being answered. Meantime, a rapidly changing world suggests that we are thinking about this issue all wrong.

Read it now.


  1. This is what I wrote today on Facebook.
    A disquisition on a one-time harvest…
    The great apes are a dying genus, but hominins, after inventing language and agriculture, have, for the moment, become the most successful species on the planet, aggrandizing most of its resources, including minerals, to themselves. Mining is essential for our modern lifestyle, but it is a one-time harvest and, in any location, it always ends. As a long-term economic development solution, it inevitably fails. That does not stop the industry or politicians from claiming it is the next great thing that will achieve wonders for the local economy. But the world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads, and that is the inevitable end-stage of most mining regions, and what is left behind is the pollution that following generations must deal with. Mining, as a process, does not only mean of minerals or petrochemicals. It can be of living resources. The white pine forests of northern Minnesota were “mined” with no thought for sustainability. Everything valuable was cut down in the space of less than a generation, permanently altering the environment, leaving behind a changed place and destroying the lives of the native people who had lived there. As a long term solution to economic development, “mining,” of any resource, can never deliver. It is by its nature temporary. The critical decision economically must be done through cost/benefit analysis. Will this temporary sugar high be compensation enough for the inevitable long term damages that will ensue from the process? That is a high bar to leap over and can not be done lightly. Hard rock mining in northern Minnesota, under best of conditions, will have a tiny effect on world mineral production but will have a major effect on northern Minnesota, not in the short-term jobs of a planned 20-year production life of the mine, but in the long term after effects. Ely, the largest town in the proposed hard rock mining region, was once an iron mining town. Mining ended in 1967 and the community began a rapid decline into insignificance until it developed a sustainable economic base, wilderness tourism. Damage the wilderness and Ely disappears. Note that in the 100 miles between the Mesabi Iron Range and International Falls/Fort Frances on the Canadian border, there are only two villages and one school. That is the nature of the boreal forest. It cannot sustain many people. It is the largest forest in the world but only supports two cities of over 100,000 population, Yakutsk and Norilsk, the latter a mining town which will disappear once the ore is exhausted.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    Rio Tinto has hauled one billion tons of ore with autonomous trucks. The reason there are so few mining jobs on the range is not because of environmental laws or low demand for product. It’s high productivity that reduces the need for labor. Rio Tinto has hauled one billion tons of ore with autonomous trucks.

    • Rio Tinto runs mines in Western Australia where as few as 25 onsite workers, mostly “lifeguards” manning kill switches and security people on site. Maintenance workers are divided between highly trained college and technical grads with computer skills and very low-skilled broom-pushers and oilers. They employ another twenty or thirty men, working remotely in Perth and elsewhere, each piloting as many as four trunks. This is to run mines that produce more ore than any in Minnesota.

      They are pioneers in maxing out use of technology to minimize the numbers of employees needed.

      Underground mining as is proposed at Tamarack can also be automated and robotized, some of that in the name of safety.

      Needless to say, Rio Tinto is not adding unionized employees.

  3. Joe musich says

    Anyone tell you you ought to be a writer Mr. Brown ? Haha! You got right to it with this piece. Very pleased it was in the Reformer. I remember the first time I saw the movie Alien. It was the Friday night opener. So much in that film brings the current condition of what all these rare earth corporate owners are doing. They are invading people’s guts and tearing them apart to procreate more of their species. Nothing really new. It has been going on for quite some time. The stock of leaving the boreal forest as is is raising in the hearts and minds more and more. I fear the invasion of the Musk. His resources are endless. At the end of the 70’s when we went up to visit family I would take my son and his cousin on adventure walks down old mining roads around the Hull Rust. It was quiet and barren and in an odd way beautiful. Hot summer August days. Absolutely no mining going on. I hold on to those memories of the starry nights in the pit of destruction. That is all that is left. Soon there will be even less I fear. The recent court decision hopefully will be a turn of the gear where the next click of the notch will be a canoe pulling up to a moose for a conversation amidst verbalizing loons. Thanks again.

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