The Miner’s Dilemma

Miners in Butte, Anaconda, and elsewhere have had to adapt to a variety of challenges including mapping subterranean landscapes, underground flooding, lack of ventilation, poor air quality, and extreme heat/ humidity underground. They first needed to employ geologists and geographers to understand where mineral deposits might be and how they could be accessed. This was crucial in avoiding collapses due to ‘soft’ earth. Being able to dig deeper as a result of this understanding created a host of new obstacles. Hydraulic mining employed immense water pressure, reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency. This resulted in thousands of acres of soil and forests being washed away affecting ecosystems downstream. Hitting underground water caused mines to flood from the inside, and expensive pumps were designed to move water up and out to the surface. As mines went deeper, they became hotter and more humid, requiring ventilation systems made of flexible canvas tubing and electric fans. Some mines contained toxic air, which was combatted with breathing apparatus helmets, modeled after deep-sea diving equipment. As technological fixes allowed mining to become more productive, power shifted away from the miners to engineers and capital investors. This shift prepared the way for the conceptual separation of the technological from the natural world, which continues to this day. It also reinforced notions about masculinity and femininity, which suggest that nature may be conquered and mastered by the strength and will of men; nature and women are thus subjugated.

Unfortunately, the consequences of mining can only be somewhat mitigated by remediation and clean up efforts. The damages caused by mining include far-reaching soil and water contamination by various metals and radioactive elements. Restoration efforts are expensive and may actually cause more problems, through transportation of toxic materials. Not mentioned in the Zombie Mines article are various bioremediation techniques involving plants and fungi. Sunflowers have a unique ability to absorb cadmium and strontium from the ground; oyster mushrooms are able to digest oil and turn it into a perfectly edible fruiting body. There can also be negative consequences from bioremediation, such as the concentrating toxins inside of the foliage itself, which may be hazardous to the animals that feed on it. It is doubtful that mining practices will ever be safe for humans or the environment. As our understanding of complex systems grows, we may consider finding ways to reduce our dependency on metals and minerals from the earth.

1 thought on “The Miner’s Dilemma”

  1. It’s interesting that remediation effects are so costly, with some environmental effects of their own. It definitely speaks to our lack of foresight in the extraction industry. When the Hastings Superfund site was mentioned in class, it scared me a little bit about our water, and how that could potentially be effecting me. I can see why a lot of people feel safe buying and drinking only bottled water. Also, not to go on a tangent, but my great-uncle died of lung cancer after living in Libby for decades, a topic which was also brought up in class. While I didn’t know him at all, it does give me a little bit of personal perspective to have someone in the family that was impacted by the asbestos mining in that area. Libby and the surrounding area, especially north of it, holds some of the most beautiful woods in Montana and it’s a shame that people might avoid it due to the toxic connotation. While the population of Montana is still small, we are a perfect example of some of the long-lasting environmental and health issues of mining.

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