Domestic mining Mother Nature’s best option
2/8/2012 1:55 PM
By MICHAEL FOSTER
For the GPAA
Until we stop consuming minerals, someone is going to need to dig them up, somewhere. No environmentalist, no matter how eco-conscious, is able to reduce consumption down to nothing. The only way to completely stop consumption is to be dead.
Fortunately, there are eco-friendly ways to manage and regulate the mining and consumption of natural resources. The most environmentally conscious way to extract wealth from Mother Earth is to limit mineral extraction to small-scale operations. Gold prospectors leave a tiny footprint. They do not build large factories; they do not use enormous carbon-monoxide emitting engines, and they do not dump tons of hazardous chemicals into the ecosystem.
What’s more, gold prospectors are able to extract wealth from the planet cleanly and efficiently without cumbersome and expensive government regulations.
Since gold prospectors cannot satisfy the hunger for gold throughout the world, large-scale mining operations will be around for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, domestic mining has had a relatively small footprint and the mining industry in America has sustained a cleaner approach to mineral extraction than most other countries. A combination of regulations and industry-wide standards have helped keep mining operations clean and large mining companies have kept pollution to a minimum.
Gold miners have become increasingly conscious of the environment in the United States since ecological concerns came to the forefront of the political dialogue in the 1970s. Nowadays, it is rare for a mining company in the U.S. to merely meet regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Thus, our best bet for extracting the planet’s wealth in an environmentally friendly way is to keep mining in the United States.
The Chinese model: an unacceptable alternative
Those who oppose domestic mining usually do so on purely ecological grounds, since the economic benefits of domestic mining is self-evident. However, the ecological lobby’s emphasis on feel-good words about clean air and green pastures is, although admirable in its ambition, short sighted and naive.
Since consumers have hardly stopped consuming gold and other precious minerals, they must come from somewhere. Increasingly, the United States has turned to foreign countries, whose leaders are more than happy to accept American dollars for their precious metals. One of those countries that has expanded domestic mining in recent years is China, which has enjoyed exponential GDP growth several times that seen in America by aggressively taking advantage of its natural resources. That exploitation has not only been aggressive — it has been reckless. China’s human rights violations have become a cliche invoked throughout the world as an example of how governments should not treat their people. Slightly less well known is the ecological impact of China’s mining operations.
While the environmental lobby in America is ready to chastise domestic companies for any perceived environmental infraction, Chinese companies rarely get a mention. Some environmentalists have gone so far as to praise China for its environmental “efforts.” Reporting on the United Nations climate talks in South Africa for Reuters, journalist Barbara Lewis proudly proclaimed that “China has roared to the front of a green technology race that ultimately could do more to save the planet than the endless hours of U.N. negotiations.”
Perhaps, Ms. Lewis was unaware of the fact that the U.S. embassy in Beijing recorded a reading of 522 micrograms of particular pollutants per cubic meter of air of 2.5 micrometers in size (PM2.5/m3). In 1997, the EPA established 65 as the standard for particulate pollution of this type; anything above is considered unhealthy by the agency’s standards. As I write this, Los Angeles — notorious for its smog — has a PM2.5/m3 reading of 59. That is less than one tenth of Beijing’s reading.
Beijing usually has a PM2.5/m3 reading in the hundreds. Flights are often delayed in China because of pollution. Columbian filmmaker Salomon Simon claims that his flight was once delayed for 10 hours because the pollution was so thick that visibility had reached zero. The pollution is a serious concern for China’s neighbors. A thick haze commonly washes over South Korea and Japan from China.
While the Chinese capital has faced severe pollution ever since the nation decided to industrialize without the ethical consciousness of their American and European counterparts, this pollution has increased in recent years as the country remains devoted to economic development and little else.
This winter, Beijing was covered in a fog of pollution for 14 straight days. Recently, public outrage flooded Chinese Internet sites after it was leaked that Chinese officials had outfitted government offices with expensive air filtration systems that often cost more than a year’s income for the average Chinese citizen. Such political controversies were once the stuff of dystopian science fiction, but China’s Communist Party has made it a fact in East Asia.
Seeing through the haze of Chinese industry
Mining is not the direct cause of all of this pollution and gold mining certainly isn’t the problem. Rather, it is the culture of economic development over all other concerns that has turned the air brown in East Asia. While government restrictions in the United States have ensured that this will never happen in America, the combination of mining companies’ corporate responsibility and strength of grassroots advocacy in America’s democracy ensures that the voices of voters remain heard.
In the Chinese one-party system, voters have no voice and there is little option amongst the powerless Chinese people but to witness the environmental devastation of their land and air. Most of the brown-white air is due to coal mining that feeds China’s energy-hungry factories, but reckless gold mining has played a part as well. In 2010, Hong Kong-based Zijin Mining Company caused an ecological tragedy in China’s Fujian province after a leak from the mine’s waste pond caused waste to flood the Ding river and Mian Hua Tan reservoir, which provides drinking water for the local population. State-run Xinhua News reported that the leak killed 4.2 million pounds of fish, but did not report on the pollution of the local drinking water. Since it remains illegal in China for private media to report on the ecological impact of the leak, Fujian’s 37 million inhabitants remain in the dark as to exactly how dirty their water is.
Elsewhere in China, reckless industrialization has decimated local ecosystems. In February, aggressive tin mining had caused heavy metals to leak into farmland in Yunnan Province. A rare protest in Zhejian province brought international attention to the environmental decimation caused by the careless manufacturing practices of JinkoSolar Holding Co., a publicly traded company that produces solar panels. That’s the same “green technology” that Ms. Lewis says will be a beacon for the environment.
The reality of Chinese pollution should be a wake up call to American voters and politicians. It is obvious that we cannot outsource mining to China and other countries that do not encourage environmental responsibility.
Instead, we should look to increasing domestic production in a culture that emphasizes responsibility and integrity over making a quick buck. This means more gold mining in the United States and less dependency on the polluting monster of the East.
Michael Foster is a freelance business journalist based in New York City.