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June 18, 2018

6/8/2018 7:29:00 AM
Sulfide mining in a special-interest world

As Oneida County continues to write a new mining ordinance, and with pro-mining and anti-mining forces galvanized because of a huge zinc and mineral ore deposit in the county, we so far remain agnostic about the need to extract it, and whether it would be environmentally wise to do so.

It is a good time, however, to entertain some fun facts and figures, and to pose some questions as we move forward, regardless of the ordinance the county adopts.

First, the county's most significant deposit - the only one really worth mining, no matter what the politicians tell you - sits on public land. That means the decision ultimately to mine or not to mine will be an especially political and public one.

Mining is always political, of course, but mining projects necessarily should give great weight to the desires of the property owner. In this case, every citizen of Oneida County is a property owner and every citizen's voice deserves equal weight.

As such, any "local agreement" that seeks to winnow the seats at the table should be considered null and void from the start.

Second, potential mining impacts need to be considered on two levels, first at the local level, and second, in a broader sense.

Locally, the Lynne deposit sits in an environmentally sensitive area. It sits near the Willow River in the Willow Flowage, and it affects the water of many surrounding communities. That's a dicey place to put a sulfide mine that can produce acid mine drainage, in other words toxic sulfuric acid and other metal contaminants.

Twenty years ago, during efforts to extract copper at the so-called Crandon mining site, the mining industry never could prove it could do so safely. That killed the project, but it also led to a state-imposed mining moratorium, which wasn't really a moratorium so much as a requirement that mining companies produce evidence of a sulfide mine that had not polluted.

It's a red flag to us that they have had to repeal that requirement to enable nonferrous metallic mining to move forward now, meaning that they still cannot prove such mines do not pollute. Otherwise they would have done so.

Naturally, the industry says otherwise; they say technology has changed in the past 20 years and today the ore can be extracted safely.

To which the people of Oneida County should say, in an echo of the now-extinct moratorium: Prove it. Show us where such a mine has not polluted, and show definitively how it can be done safely in such an environmentally sensitive region, and we'll move on to the next considerations.

Those are both local and global.

On the world stage, do we need to extract the ore to help meet the world's zinc and copper demand, or is this an extraction from public land for private gain only? Again, this is a public question because the deposit sits on public land.

On the one hand it would seem extraction is needed. The world surely needs zinc, which is used in so much of our daily lives, especially in plumbing and cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, and in cars. According to the USGS, the average 3,000-pound car contains 22 pounds of zinc. That's a lot of zinc worldwide.

There's also copper in them there lands of Lynne, and the average car contains 18-49 pounds of copper.

And here's a fun fact opponents of copper mining should consider when they drive their "green" electric hybrids and electric cars to protest rallies: Those cars require even more copper to function.

According to the Copper Development Association, hybrid electric vehicles contain 85 pounds of copper; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, 132 pounds; and battery electric vehicles, 183 pounds.

Fortunately for all of us, both copper and zinc are 100 percent recyclable. That said, only about 30-35 percent of all copper in use today is recycled, and only about 50 percent of the zinc in use today is recycled.

So long as the environmental movement does not express equal concern about increasing that recycling, so long as mining opponents continue to advocate for electric cars (the manufacture of which also involves massive carbon footprints) rather than oppose them with the same ferociousness as they oppose sulfide mining, so long as they do not campaign for replacing copper and zinc with alternatives (replacing copper lines with fiber-optics, for example, or replacing copper and zinc fungicides with various plant extracts), their protests should be viewed as part of a broader globalist-driven agenda that is less about sustainability and more about political power.

So, just as the people of Oneida County should demand answers from the mining industry, so we should demand answers from the environmental movement: Show us how we are working actively and sustainably to reduce zinc and copper use and increase zinc and copper recycling, and then we can consider not mining this deposit.

Otherwise, it may be in the public interest to do so, if the mining company can protect natural resources.

Locally, there are the economic questions that have always hovered over sulfide mining projects. Those questions remain the same. What will be the economic benefits for the county, and will they be temporary?

Studies across the board show higher consumption spending and lower poverty rates in counties with mining operations. But they also show a skills mismatch that often requires migrant labor to move in, rather than directly helping the local population. Often those employment opportunities, and the people who took advantage of them, are gone in a heartbeat, leaving behind ongoing infrastructure costs and ghost-town scars.

The questions are all complex, but the decision will be a simple one. The big deposit in this county is on public land, and the public - by which we mean all the public and the authentic public, not the fake public, as defined as that cabal of good-old-boys sitting on the county board who organize and lobby in their own self-interest - should have the right to simply say yes or no.

As such, we submit that a countywide referendum be an essential part of any proposed mining project.

But first we need answers, answers about the environmental safety of any mining operation, answers about the true need of extraction as opposed to focusing efforts on recycling and reduction, and answers about the economic advantages and pitfalls of any sulfide mining.

A tall task - especially because neither special interest side should be trusted, not the industry and not the agenda-driven environmentalists - but the people of Oneida County must be up to the mission.

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