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Vol. 19, No. 21 Week of May 25, 2014
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: U.S. mining industry suffers bum rap

Though mining in America hit its stride with the California Gold Rush, it has faced significant regulation only since the í70s

J. P. Tangen

Special to Mining News

I have often mused about why the mining industry is held in such disdain in the United States today. It wasnít always that way. When I was a child, the mining industry was the subject of song and saga, and before that, there was the day when the incessant stamp mills of mines like the A.J. in Juneau were the sound of a full lunch pail. People respected hard work and knew intuitively that basic industries were from whence our raw materials evolved into consumer goods that made the American lifestyle possible.

Over the past several decades, mining has inexorably taken it on the chin for all kinds of reasons, some of which were more just than others. At one time, mines, especially coal mines were the source of danger and risk. Those who went underground were exposed to earth movement and cave-in as well as ventilation and air-quality issues. Although such events still occur today, they are rare events in the United States and receive major headlines when they occur.

Historically, mining took a great leap forward when gold was found in California in 1848; however, mining had been taking place around the world for thousands of years, and even in the Americas, rudimentary mining was commonplace before the arrival of European settlers.

Between 1848 and 1866, in the unsettled American West, thousands of hopeful adventurers sought their fortunes, and frequently were very successful. Without established civil law in place, the early miners turned to the Mexican model of establishing local camp rules, soon to become mining districts. Conventionally, the purpose of the mining district was to set down guidelines for the location of claims and to maintain a record of those locations. Sometimes, the rules also dealt with dispute resolution and even criminal misconduct.

In 1866, the first federal mining law was enacted, followed six years later by the Mining Law of 1872 which became the cornerstone of mining on the federal public domain. The following year, the public domain was nearly doubled in size by the purchase of Alaska from Russia; but it took another 25 years for miners to turn their attention to the mineral potential of the frozen North.

The logical breakdown of the history of mining in the United States is quite stark. Before 1848, mining occurred, but was of little significance nationally. The gold rushes to California and later to Alaska were incredibly exciting and brought great wealth to many people and, more to the point, provided our nation with the resources, accessible to few other people in the world, to emerge as a productive giant. Observers who fail to give due credit to the role that mining on public lands played during this period, havenít considered the evidence.

After the turn of the Twentieth Century, America went to war, not just once or twice, but many times, and those wars were paid for, to a certain extent, by the wealth that came from the mines on public lands, not to mention the guns and armor that were pounded out of the iron and nickel recovered from those mines.

When President Nixon allowed the price of gold to float on the world market, a new resurgence of opportunity emerged for miners; however, Nixon also signed into law other measures which dampened the exploration ardor. The National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and to a lesser extent the Clean Air Act all imposed significant burdens on domestic mining. Later the Federal Land Planning and Management Act also invoked regulatory burdens on the industry.

In the case of FLPMA, the impact was sufficient in Alaska to induce most miners to seek their fortunes on state land rather than on federal land, even though the federal government still controlled two-thirds of the state after the selection process was completed.

Mining is expensive and sometimes risky to the minerís purse and health as well as the environment; although bureaucratic regulations have solved most of the latter concerns. What remains an issue is the publicís attitude toward mining.

The first 50 years of Americaís history saw little mining, and the second 50 years saw boom and bust times, while the third half century saw great, but unregulated, prosperity due to the demands on the industry at a time when people were far more concerned with their ability to feed their families than with their own health and safety or with the quality of the environment.

It is only during the most recent decades that America has turned its attention to the fallout from the historic practice of externalizing development costs. Ironically, the mining industry, as a whole, has aggressively sought to comply with the new, technology-forcing, standards, but has received little credit for doing so.

The upshot of this transformation has been the creation of a healthy, safe and environmentally sound sector that, in the United States at least, goes unrecognized for its progress. In no small part, that lack of recognition is due to the failure of the industry itself to make the point that it is a positive contributor to the modern world.

On May 9, the Alaska Miners Association celebrated Alaska Mining Day, acknowledging the role that mining occupies in our state. Presumably, this will be the first of many celebrations of our industry, and presumably it will be the first of many steps that miners in Alaska and across the nation will take to shine a bright light on the positive accomplishments and contributions which mining has made to the history of our nation.

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