As Demand for New Technology Increases, Mining Threatens Pristine Places

From smartphones to electric-car batteries, minerals are essential. Can places like Alaska's Bristol Bay survive unscathed?

For SalmonState campaigner Rachel James, as for many Alaskans, an announcement in 2014 brought a wave of relief: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would, in effect, block a sprawling copper- and gold-mining project vehemently opposed by commercial fishers, Alaska Natives, and conservation groups like her own.

The Pebble Mine would create what could be North America’s largest open-pit excavation and ponds of potentially toxic tailings. Worse, it would be located in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, where fishers catch more sockeye salmon than anywhere on the planet and millions of birds, including most Pacific Black Brants and Emperor Geese, breed or forage. Even the smallest version of the mine, EPA scientists said, could have “significant and unacceptable adverse effects” on the watershed.

So it was a blow when the EPA reversed its position this summer, just weeks after agency scientists released comments suggesting they were no less concerned. “There’s no logic to it at all,” says a clearly frustrated James. “The science didn’t change, the data didn’t change—it was the politics that changed.”

Conservationists in other regions are also now fighting mine battles they hoped they’d moved beyond. In the past year, federal officials have revived at least two more lightning-rod copper-mining proposals once deemed too risky—one next to Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters wilderness and another in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains.

Disheartened but not surprised by the Trump administration’s pro-industry shift, protectors of these places are retreading the past. Others are preparing for mining’s future. As global hunger for metals used in technologies like smartphones and solar panels grows, new areas may face increasing pressure to let miners in. For example, the World Bank calculated that to keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius by sourcing more global energy from renewables, battery-storage technology alone could require 10 times more lithium, cobalt, aluminum, and other metals by 2050. In June the Department of Commerce issued a strategy, ordered by President Trump in 2017, to increase production of 35 “critical minerals,” from aluminum to zirconium, for which the nation relies heavily on imports. Copper wasn’t on the list, but global demand for it will also rise.

“Pretty certainly, new mines will be needed somewhere in the world,” says Colorado School of Mines economist Roderick Eggert. “There will need to be something like a Pebble, and probably several deposits like Pebble, to meet growing demand for copper.”

While critics generally agree such needs can’t be ignored, they say the new strategy’s emphasis on boosting supply overlooks key risks. “They’re right to be taking a more strategic look at minerals and metals supply and demand, but we can’t divorce the environmental considerations from the geopolitical and competitiveness considerations,” says Sharon Burke, resource security program director at the think tank New America. “No matter what, we shouldn’t let such concerns push us into a race to the bottom.”

The environmental group Earthworks argues that large-scale mining operations, especially those causing long-term water pollution, are inherently destructive and should be a last resort—and off the table in ecologically rich places like Bristol Bay, says northwest program director Bonnie Gestring. A recent report it commissioned concluded that better recycling can significantly reduce demand for cobalt, lithium, and more. And increasingly, she says, clean-energy companies will have market power to demand cleaner sources of minerals, too.

Still, some metals like copper are already heavily recycled, and some new mines seem inevitable. That’s one reason Congressional Democrats introduced legislation to amend what they say is an outdated, Wild West–era law that governs hardrock mining on federal lands. The bill would charge miners royalties like oil and gas producers (they pay none today), give managers more authority to halt high-risk projects, and create a cleanup fund. “Before we start a 21st-century mining rush, we need to reform our 19th-century law,” says Adam Sarvana, House Natural Resources Committee Democratic spokesman.

Such reforms would reshape mining in America, even if they wouldn’t affect Pebble Mine, which is on state land. With a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit decision due in 2020, opponents have turned to the courts, suing over the EPA’s reversal. Though the matter seems complex, Gestring sees it as simple: “It really comes down to a question of whether we want perpetual pollution or perpetual salmon.”

This story originally ran in the Winter 2019 issue as “Metal Revival.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.​