Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?

If you’ve been paying attention, Trump recently overturned an Obama-era moratorium on mining on US Forest Service lands near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). A fragile and relatively pristine aquatic wilderness, the BWCAW is especially vulnerable to mining pollution and run off, specifically Acid Mine Drainage which is a historically unstoppable problem for the sulfide mining proposed for the BWCAW area and blocked, temporarily, by the Obama administration. As I’ve written, I think this is a short-sighted give-away to powerful multi-national corporate interests, a tragedy of the commons. In other words, business as usual, as in crony capitalism, which has become the only kind of capitalism in America and as far as I can tell, the world.

To make America truly great again we need to realize that the crony capitalist system we have and refer to with mendacity as “the free market” is destroying our world, increasing inequality, and is ultimately a race to the bottom where the ultra-wealthy siphon off as much of the riches of this planet for their own use as they can before the music stops and the 99.999% of the rest of us figure out we’ve been had and break out the pitchforks. Matt Taibbi said it best when he called this kind of capitalism a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” In truth he was referring only to investment bank Goldman Sachs but the Goldman business model is now the global business model. Once we recognize that crushing organized labor, turning back the clock on environmental protections and bringing back mining and manufacturing jobs is not going to make America great we can move on to building a sustainable America. For future greatness will belong to nations that can become sustainable rather than climbing over each other to wreak havoc on their natural resources to produce more and more consumer trash, pollution, and environmental destruction. I want America to be that future, great and sustainable nation and to lead other nations in that same direction.

Do we need a functional economy, methods for the responsible utilization of natural resources, and jobs? Yep. We can’t all trade hemp seeds for a haircut, free range eggs for a laptop. However, the days of endless resource extraction and heedless waste spewing need to be over. Every activity of economic significance has inputs and outputs and to be sustainable we need to levy the true costs of these economic pursuits. Pollution is expensive, waste is expensive, greenhouse gases are expensive, water is expensive, a world-spanning network of military bases is expensive. Who pays these costs? We, the tax payers, the air-breathers, the water-drinkers, the food-eaters pay these costs in monetary and health debits. For example, how much has the use of diesel fuel for long haul trucking in the age of “just in time” delivery cost in terms of shortened lifespans in America alone? Well, one estimate states that the level of diesel particulates in California’s air will cause 540 additional cancers per 1 million people. At an average cost of $150,000 per cancer, and a population of 300 million people in the US, then the cost of getting your tube socks and salami delivered by truck to Walmart is roughly $24 Billion or $80 dollars per person even if you don’t get cancer. That’s an estimate of the cost of having diesel in our economy and doesn’t even touch on greenhouse gases, or the environmental destruction of extraction, refinement, and use. Gasoline is similar. Beef is similar. Tofu too. Everything we do kills us, costs us. So should we just give up and take a dirt nap? No.

The answer is that we can decide which economic impacts we are willing to subsidize and which to tax. We need to put prices on things that we once treated as free, or of no impact. For example, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants. Necessary for modern life, yes, but many economic pursuits would be made more efficient or otherwise improved if the true cost were levied. Efforts to do so such as through carbon taxes have thus far met resounding resistance due to perceived impact on business as usual and the regressive nature of taxing fuels like gasoline (20lbs per gallon) and foods like bread (2.2lbs per loaf) that have large carbon footprints. However, despite resistance there are proposed methods to tax carbon that minimize the regressive impact on the poor who are less able to absorb these costs. The fact is that we need to buck up, cinch our collective belts, and in the immortal words of Jimmy Carter, turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater if we want our nation to be sustainable, to pass on a better world to our children. The things we do, the things we buy, the things we waste impact the world in surprising ways. Awareness and then action are needed.

Similarly, drinkable fresh water is an increasingly scarce resource, yet we treat it as if it were free and never ending. We grow water-intensive crops in the desert, like alfalfa, which we then feed to cows to make beef. That is why it takes roughly 1,800 gallons of water to make one pound of beef. We need water every day to live and vulture capitalists are seeing the writing on the wall and seeking to secure and privatize drinking water sources worldwide as the next gold rush. It is far better to get out ahead of this before we find ourselves thirsty and at the mercy of multinational corporations like Nestle. 70% of global freshwater usage is agricultural. Price agricultural water use appropriately and we will see dramatic shifts away from wasteful flood and spray style to drip irrigation, the halt of using marginal lands to grow outlandish crops, efforts to reduce the estimated 30–50% of water that leaks in transit, and a shift in diet away from such water-expensive foods like beef, almonds (1900 gal/lb), etc. Maybe we will even be happier and appreciate that amazing medium rare steak when we have it, and eat it all rather than throw 570,000 tons of meat away per year.

Lastly, metals and rare earths like copper, palladium and cobalt are necessary for many high tech items like mobile phones and efforts to mine them such as near the BWCAW highlight our unending hunger for such resources. However, the potential to severely damage the wilderness as well as the surrounding watershed for millennia is very very high and the impact irreversible for generations. Why in the world are we even considering allowing the mining of sulfide ore next to the BWCAW? The proposed Twin Metals mine is planning to process 20,000 tons of ore per day or roughly 7 million tons per year and with an expected copper yield of 0.6% per ton will produce 42,000 tons of copper annually. Yet in America alone we throw away an estimated 9.4 million tons of e-waste per year, with 41.8 million tons worldwide, and processing this stream of e-waste (of which only 12.5% is currently recycled) would yield 420,000 tons of copper, 10 times that gained from endangering the BWCAW. Obviously the economic incentives we have in place suck big time. Going even further, the e-waste content of existing landfills is estimated at about 2% and total trash generated in the US at roughly 250 million tonsper year. With copper content for typical circuit board waste at 20%, these landfills represent a giant opportunity for mining. A giant opportunity that is already an environmental blemish and that is already not abutting sensitive wildernesses like the BWCAW. All we need to do is start valuing our wilderness, our water, and our air as much as we value jobs, economic growth, and corporate profits and we can have both. Landfills may not be as rich as the best mineral ores, but add on a small surcharge for each ton of ore extracted from valued wilderness and subsidize “ore” from landfills and waste streams and suddenly mining next to the BWCAW is a non-starter. As it should be.

Jonathan Engel is a medical device research scientist by day with a passion for wilderness and a lifetime spent on the water and in the woods at his 1920s-era family cabin on the Kawishiwi River near the proposed Twin Metals project.