HOUGHTON - Bill Carter lived in Bisbee, Ariz., a one-time copper mining town, but he never really thought about it much until it made him sick.
Among other things, Carter is a gardener, and one summer, after feasting on home-grown salads, he came down with what turned out to be arsenic poisoning, the result of a copper mining byproduct that had leached into his soil, probably decades earlier.
Once his soil had been tested, the company that had operated the mine years before dug up his yard and completely replaced the topsoil, as part of a massive, years-long mitigation program. Around the same time, he learned that a new mining company was considering re-opening open pit operations in Bisbee, and the combination of factors was enough to send him on a journey across the United States and to several mines and proposed mining sites around the world.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Decades-old arsenic pollution from this mine, the Lavender Pit, a defunct open pit operation in Bisbee, Ariz., poisoned author Bill Carter’s vegetable garden. That inspired him to travel throughout the world leaning about copper mining and eventually write ‘Boom, Bust, Boom’ about what he learned.
The journey was research to help him decide whether he and his family should continue to live in Bisbee, and for an eventual book, "Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World," which is being released for the first time in paperback this month.
In his travels, Carter learned just how important copper is to industry, transportation, communication and pretty much all aspects of modern life. He learned that as China, Brazil, Indonesia, India and many other parts of the world modernize, demand for copper will continue to increase by about 40 percent over current production levels, barring revolutionary changes in technology.
He also learned that copper mining is, almost inevitably, one of the most polluting, environmentally destructive processes known to man. Additionally, he found that little of the money promised by copper companies actually stays in communities, with many workers coming from and living elsewhere.
Carter and his wife eventually moved their family out of Bisbee, but in the epilogue to the paperback he admitted that there's no getting away from copper as a major part of life.
"We want the products copper gives us: cars, computers, electricity, water piping, airplanes, etc.," he wrote, and added that choices about when and where mines are opened should be not just a local issue, but also a global one, to best control where and how mining can take place with the least environmental impact.
"More importantly," he wrote, "we must realize that if we don't like the results from hard rock mining, then we need to consider spending the money, brainpower, and political will to change how we run our world."
Carter recently spoke to the Gazette about current plans to bring copper mining back to the western Upper Peninsula.
The first important thing to realize when choosing a personal position on mining, Carter said, is that the company currently exploring and permitting mines won't likely be the same company putting them into production. Generally, what he calls 'junior' companies don't have the capital to bring a site to production. Instead, they demonstrate the potential of a mine and handle the permitting, then try to sell the project to a major extraction company.
"They're probably trying to attract investors," he said. "Everybody could predict Michigan could be productive again."
"When you have someone buy them, then you know you are in a serious game," he added.
Locally, the Keweenaw Copper Co. has purchased the White Pine and Copperwood Mine sites, in White Pine and Ironwood, and holds leases on undeveloped sites in the Keweenaw. Keweenaw Copper is majority owned by the Highland Copper Company, Inc., a Canadian company focused on these U.P. projects. Highland's website describes the company as an "exploration" company - not a mining company.
Another consideration is how proposed mining will be conducted. In some ways, underground mines are usually less polluting than open-pit mines, particularly in terms of airborne dust, Carter said. In the past, all Copper Country mines have been underground.
Processing technologies have improved, he said, but the best technologies aren't always the cheapest.
Instead of chemical smelting, cutting-edge companies, "are doing some wild stuff like bacteria that eats the ore," Carter said. Other more environmentally conscious strategies include dry stacking and self-contained sulphuric acid leeching fields.
At Copperwood, some people have objected to the plan to leave waste in a tailings pile, rather than backfilling it into the mine, which they consider a better method of controlling sulphur runoff at a permitted site that ends only about 200 feet from Lake Superior.
Regardless of environmental planning, Carter said, it's also important to consider the human element in the equation, such as drivers transporting pollutants.
"These are big toys, going for a lot of years," he said. "It's inevitable that someone screws up."
Economically, Carter said mines can bring benefits, though they're not likely to radically revitalize communities. Usually, he said, only about half the jobs a company promises go to local workers. On the other hand, at least in the U.S., those jobs tend to pay well.
"When someone says it put my kids through college, I respect that," he said. "If a community really wants to, go for it."