Butte’s Got More Acid Than Woodstock!

Technological advances allowed mining to go deeper and wider than before because it made it possible for humans to work in toxic underground environments (LeCain, p. 37). Ventilation systems blew clean, cool air from the surface of the Earth to flow into the tunnels which lowered the temperature of the Earth just enough for mining to continue. New scaffolding systems were designed by Philip Deidesheimer allowing the mines to be “extended indefinitely upward and to the sides” (LeCain p. 40).  Other safety technologies were also developed like oxygen tanks that miners were dependent on in toxic air, and sprinkler systems to suppress fires. These technologies however were not fail-safe and on June 8, 1917, 164 miners died in a fire caused by the installation of a sprinkler system (LeCain p. 49-50). The technologies that were invented, were not designed to keep the miners safe just for safety’s sake, but to be able to dig deeper and deeper. Eventually, the once powerful unions no longer had as much sway because mining became more reliant on technology than miners. According to LeCain, as the miners “became more dependent on complex technologies… the relative independence they had once enjoyed underground diminished.” (p. 49). 

From an ecological model standpoint, it’s nearly impossible to say that mining will ever be a safe proposition to humans and the environment, simply because it’s impossible to predict all future effects. As long as people are reliant on Earth’s precious metals through their smart phones, cars, and computers, mining will be a necessity. With increased technologies, the impacts can potentially be minimized compared to Butte or Anaconda, but not eliminated. There’s no ethical way to start a mining operation, because there will always be someone who doesn’t want a mine in their area, making consensus impossible. During the mining process, however, worker’s rights are essential, as well as community input, and third party investigations to ensure that, for the technology available of the time, mining operations are done as responsibly as possible. All operating mines should also have resources set aside for clean up. I think that the only truly ethical thing is to stop mining altogether, and just recycle what’s already been mined, and clean up the messes our ancestors made as best we can. 

LeCain, T. J. (2009). Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press.

1 thought on “Butte’s Got More Acid Than Woodstock!”

  1. Anna- Good suggestions for how to mitigate the damage caused by mining! I agree that mining operations should have resources set aside for the clean-up from the very beginning. Surely there are standards of practice and infrastructure for mining operations by now (I hope!) that are subject to investigation and regulation. There are facilities that recycle electronics and such- I’m not sure how effective or significant they are. It would be interesting to look into that.. Seems to me like we could create a whole cornucopia of jobs if we eliminated all of the non-essential positions and put people to work trying to undo damage from mining and other various forms of pollution. Not sure if there’s any money in that though..

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