“This is something that we had anticipated,” said Rio Tinto-Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett, when asked about the huge landslide that shut down the Bingham Canyon Mine last week.
If we are to believe the Rio Tinto press release, it was nobody’s doing. The Canyon Mine simply “experienced a slide along a geotechnical fault line.” The mining company saw this trouble coming since February, we’re told, and once the movement “accelerated…pre-emptive measures were taken.”
Still, the enormity of the slide took Ted Himebaugh, Kennecott’s general manager of operation readiness, by surprise: he told the Deseret News that “he had seen nothing like it in his 36 years with the company.” A black swan event, then — a wonder. Who could have foreseen this?
It’s telling and a little disturbing that the statements the Rio Tinto issued after this disaster (and disaster is the right word here) make no mention of what was going on prior to the slide at Bingham Canyon, which is — it’s hard to believe this needs saying — a whole lot of mining and a whole lot of earth disturbing in close proximity to a geotechnical fault line. In fact, the Bingham Canyon operation is the world’s largest man-made excavation.
Rio Tinto has been very careful to sidestep any acknowledgement of its role, any connection of the mining operation with the slide, any accountability or responsibility for the slide: the Canyon experienced something; Rio Tinto watched. It’s as if some greater powers were at work in the Canyon — as if the earth in Bingham Canyon moved entirely on its own. The company of course moved everyone to safety, and now plans to get the mine up and running again, to “provide not only the jobs for the people but money to the state of Utah and economy.” The only thing that might hold things up is if they can’t resume operations safely: “we will not take a risk.”
I suppose that’s meant to be reassuring. It makes me shudder. What’s missing here is any deeper appreciation of just how risky these industrial mining operations always already are, even when things are running perfectly and according to plan. People concerned about the dangers of subsidence posed by the Eagle Mine operation on the Yellow Dog Watershed (another Rio Tinto /Kennecott project, which I’ve blogged about before — here and here, for instance) might want to have a good look at this Bingham Canyon slide and think about the risks they’re about to run. But it goes beyond — way beyond — the very serious risks of spawning streams collapsing, acid mine drainage, or other kinds of environmental degradation. Industrial mining operations put everything at risk: peace, agriculture, and social stability in many parts of the world, environmental sustainability everywhere mining is done.
That doesn’t mean mining shouldn’t be done at all. It means that when it is done, and done at this scale, people, communities, companies and investors need to understand fully how mining will affect them, what it will require of them, what it will involve, what it will bring and what it will leave behind. Company- and industry-sponsored community outreach and corporate responsibility efforts are insufficient; they are created to conceal the real risks and the true costs of mining.
“Mining is the material basis for life, making it difficult to exaggerate its significance. George Orwell called it part of the ‘metabolism’ of civilization,” Shefa Siegel writes; and yet “the ethics of mining are nowhere to be found.” His essay is a must-read, especially this week, in the wake of Bingham Canyon and the run up to the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting.
One outcome of mining’s omission from environmental and development ethics is that as other disciplines and sectors gradually integrated concerns about sustainability into their knowledge communities, mining engineering, mineral economics and processing, geochemistry, and other sub-disciplines associated with mining have remained static. As a result, there is less experience with the study and practice of sustainable mining than, say, forestry, agronomy, or soil ecology. There is no mining equivalent, for example, of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. And while there is much anxiety about the failure to enact the ethics of climate change or environmental health, mining does not even have an ethical roadmap that we do not follow. With climate change there is broad agreement that exceeding a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature breaks the planet. Pollution experts know to a microgram the tolerable level of exposure to mercury, lead, and arsenic. But what is expected of a mine?
Only in the last decade has vocal public discourse about global resource policy emerged. The effort to build an ethics of sustainable extraction is structured around two principal concepts: transparency and corporate social responsibility. While transparency initiatives concentrate on exposing revenue transactions between the private and public sectors in extractive industry projects, corporate responsibility efforts focus on the improvement of relations between companies and communities. The transparency movement has sparked advocacy and legislative activity in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada—the host markets for much of the world’s trading of mining shares. Meanwhile, companies are dedicating more staff and resources to ensure the benefits of mine development reach communities in the form of improved services, infrastructure, and education. These twin concepts are intended to transform resource extraction from a winner-takes-all model to one in which all parties benefit.
The problem is that neither corporate responsibility nor transparency speaks to the reconciliation of extraction with ecological limits, or to the fact that we have entered a period of resource scarcity that necessitates nothing short of monopolization to make the business of industrial mining profitable. This order of magnitude leaves no room for multiple uses of land and resources, especially the smallholder farming and mining economies upon which people depend in mineralized places. Endemic poverty, conflict, and ecological collapse in these regions are rooted in the inequitable allocation of resources. In such cases, win-win solutions are an illusion.
I’ll be live-tweeting the Rio Tinto meeting on Thursday.