Where should we get our copper?

Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World
Bill Carter, 2012

I picked this book up because it struck me that I might build my lectures and chapter about mining around copper mining. Although gold and silver mines were prominent in
Part One of my class and textbook, copper is even more vital to creating and maintaining the modern world than precious metals. The modern world could arguably live without gold. But not without copper.

Another advantage of focusing a chapter on copper is that I've already done a bit of research on copper mining in the Americas. I wrote a Masters Thesis on Chilean copper and then when I returned to grad school I spent a season reading about Michigan mining communities. Bill Carter lived in Bisbee, Arizona, so his 2012 book includes some Arizona mining history. Even more interesting is the way Carter weaves his personal experience and the current state of the copper industry into his story.

Bisbee Arizona was once a center of copper mining in the Southwest. Phelps Dodge took $8 billion worth of copper out of the ground there between 1880 and 1975, and the
Freeport-McMoRan which bought out Phelps Dodge reopened mining operations in Bisbee in 2013. Concerned over how the town would change when the mine reopened, Carter and his family moved out at the end of his story. But although he decided not to raise a family by the mine, Carter says if it had been up to him, he would have chosen to reopen the mine.

Carter's thoughts about where copper should be mined are an important element of the book. The modern world can't survive without copper, so it has to come from somewhere. In addition to being a Bisbee resident and an author, Carter is a fisherman who has spent several seasons working in
Bristol Bay, Alaska during the salmon run. Bristol Bay is the site of the planet's biggest sockeye salmon run. Although the area is sparsely populated, 75% of residents make their livings fishing and processing salmon. And the area is seismically active.

A consortium of international mining corporations calling themselves the
Pebble Partnership want to open the largest mine in the Americas, fourteen miles from the headwaters of the salmon run. Carter reports on a visit to a scientist concerned with copper contaminating the streams. "As little as two parts per billion of copper above normal background copper in the water," he says "can make a salmon lose its sense of direction." In other words, locating a mine next to the biggest salmon run in the world is probably a bad idea, even if the mines don't spill or leach any of the chemicals they use to process copper into the environment (122). And mines rarely, if ever, manage to stop chemical spills. It's not really a matter of if, but of when.

Carter must have done a pretty good job disguising his feelings while he was researching the book, because he gets a lot of access to mine company executives, prospectors, and other pro-mining types. He is invited to tour the site with guests of the Pebble Partnership, and then interviews the company's CEO, John Shively. During the conversation, Shively tells Carter he doesn't believe the Exxon Valdez spill "actually hurt the salmon at all" (158). Carter comments that "To even hint that the spill's long-term effects are negligible is borderline psychotic and definitely delusional," and yet Shively impresses him as a fairly decent guy. Again and again, though, Carter shows mining company people projecting sincerity and concern as they overconfidently predict that they have everything well in hand and won't let anything go wrong.

grasberg_mine
Grasberg Mine
Returning to Bisbee, Carter wonders whether he can trust the promises of the mine company to respect the town and its environment if they reopen operations. Freeport-McMoRan, which bought the Phelps Dodge mine, also owns the world's largest gold reserve and third largest copper operation, at the
Grasberg mine in New Guinea. The company has bribed Indonesian officials, hired the country's military and intelligence services to intimidate critics of the mine, and the mine's environmental record is so bad that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation revoked Freeport's insurance policy for environmental violations. This is one of the interesting elements of the story of mining in the 21st century. Although technically, US laws would prohibit many of the practices used at Grasberg, do government officials in Phoenix or Washington have the will or the power to make them stick? As decisions about mine operations are increasingly made in the boardrooms of stateless global corporations, will practices once restricted to powerless, "third-world" mines become prevalent everywhere? Maybe being treated the way the residents of faraway resource peripheries have always been treated will help people in developed countries develop a sense of solidarity with environmentalists in the developing world.

And yet, as Carter says, the modern world needs copper. It has to be mined somewhere. Carter's conclusion suggests we need to develop better criteria than NIMBY to decide where the mines should be and how they should operate. Bisbee was always a mining town, Carter says, which is a good point. But more important, Bisbee is in the desert. It seems reasonable to suspect there may be less environmental damage associated with digging a big pit in the Arizona desert (or in the Atacama) than next to the world's biggest salmon run. Not that there's no damage -- that's not a choice available to us. But less.