Copper mines boomed around the turn of the nineteenth century. This was primarily due the rise of electricity in just about every application imaginable, from manufacturing plants to street lights to home appliances (LeCain, 2009, pg. 26-29). Mining is, by and large, a dangerous venture. This fact rang especially true in the early days of copper mining, as it was not uncommon for miners to perish while on the job. One of the most notable killers was that of fire (pg. 49-50). Once ignited, infernos would ravage through mine shafts, trapping the men inside. Even if these poor souls managed to avoid heat stroke or burning to death, there was a strong likelihood that they’d succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning instead. If immediate hazards such as fire didn’t kill miners, the silica dust they inhaled eventually would (pg. 45). Silica particles have a nasty habit of getting themselves jammed into lungs. With prolonged exposure, this can lead to a fatal disease known as silicosis. One of the earliest attempts to reduce these work-related casualties was a device known as the Draeger helmet. This helmet was originally intended for deep sea diving, but found a home in the mining industry. By providing a steady flow of oxygen for miners, the device allowed them to survive in otherwise life-threatening conditions, such as smoke-choked areas (pg. 46-47). On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. But if one peels back the layers, they quickly discover that Draeger helmets were little more than a technological fix for poorly constructed mines. Rather than trying to improve the work environment, some companies would simply put the helmets on the miners and send them down to continue business as usual. In a way, the helmets became an excuse for the hazardous conditions, when in reality, they were a symptom of a greater problem.
A vast majority of humanity’s electronics require precious metals to function (Sandlos and Keeling, 2013). Given the tech-saturated world we humans live in, simply ceasing mining operations doesn’t seem to be the most practical solution. We may eventually develop an environmentally-friendly alternative to these metals, but for the time being, it is imperative that we take as many precautions beforehand to minimize a mine’s impact on the environment (and ourselves). Prior to construction, I believe a vital question to ask is, “Does this mine need to exist in the first place?” If the answer is “no”, then those plans can be promptly nipped in the bud. If the answer is “yes”, then the next logical step would be a layout of operations: the location of the mine, how long/deep/wide it’s projected to be, worker safety, and how the company plans to dispose of the waste. Again, if the company finds it cannot handle these responsibilities, then it should be prohibited from moving so much as a pebble. Obviously, current or pre-existing mines are far greater threats than a theoretical operation. For the ones still operating, I think the best course of action would be to implement strict regulations on companies to minimize worker endangerment and avoid improper disposal of waste. If we’re speaking in proximate terms, it’s likely that mining can be made a safe occupation for humans in the 21st century. We’ve constructed buildings that can withstand earthquakes and suits that allow us to survive in the depths of outer space. To me, stable mines and adequate protection for workers doesn’t seem that far out of our reach. Though realistically speaking, human miners will probably be replaced by machines, eliminating the need to make mining environments hospitable for said humans (I’m starting to suspect you can draw anything back to robots). This leaves us with the long-term environmental problems caused by defunct mines, also known as “zombie mines”. Despite ceasing operations, mines such as Canada’s Giant Mine continue to leach pollutants into the greater ecosystem, affecting the quality of life of wildlife and humans alike (Sandlos and Keeling, 2013). To be frank, the heavy metals and radiation from the mines might be impossible to remedy unless we can somehow reverse or destroy them. We can contain toxic material or put it somewhere else, but that isn’t so much ridding us of the problem as it is setting it aside for later. If we care about the future of the planet and our descendents, then mining needs to be taken into careful consideration. As indicated by sites like Giant Mine, failure to do so might condemn us to an eternity of keeping our mistakes under control.
LeCain, T. J. (2009). Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press.
Sandlos, J., & Keeling, A. (2013, May). Zombie Mines and the (Over)burden of History. Retrieved October 05, 2018, from https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/article/zombie-mines-and-the-overburden-of-history/