As more Wisconsinites use solar panels and drive EV, more mining may come to western states
A note for Milwaukee-area users of solar power and other forms of renewable energy and also for drivers of electric vehicles: More mines are being proposed in the Western U.S. to provide metals for the expected growth in those and other high-tech products, which are aimed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels and lessening the impacts of global warming.
That leaves some people trying to make sure the fight against climate change doesn't lead to more air and water pollution near the new mines, including in the state of Idaho.
On a bright spring day in the small community of Idaho City, landowner Ted Jewell is talking about his hillside:
"Now, all mining needs a lot of timbers, and this was no exception. They logged all of this hill off," he says.
Jewell, who says his great-grandfather wanted to be a lead miner in southwest Wisconsin, is standing on Gold Hill, an hour north of Boise, and describing the mining that took place on this property from 1863 to 1938.
The state of Idaho says it does not consider this closed mine to be an environmental concern. But other former or current mining sites across the Rocky Mountains have caused problems for local ground and surface water. Air and noise pollution are also often a concern at active sites.
Now, more mines are being developed or proposed in the West.
For example, the company Perpetua Resources wants to develop an open pit gold and antimony mine at a former mining site near a fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho. Antimony is used in solar panels and is expected to have a big future in battery storage units near solar and wind farms. Perpetua spokesperson McKinsey Lyon says what her company calls the Stibnite Project would be a source of metals now often brought in from overseas.
"The most important thing we can do is bring mineral production home. Because when it is home, there are impacts we can control here. We can regulate, moderate, and have oversight of whereas, if we are mining anywhere else in the world, we are not in control of the environmental impacts of that production," Lyon told WUWM while standing outside the Boise Basin Museum in Idaho City.
But environmental groups are raising concerns about the Stibnite proposal. So is the Nez Perce Tribe, as the tribe has treaty-reserved rights, natural resources, cultural resources and sacred sites in the area.
Shannon Wheeler is tribal vice-chairman.
"Ta'c meeywi. Good Morning, everyone. Appreciate you being here," said Wheeler in Nez Perce and English to about 50 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists who gathered in Boise to hear Wheeler talk about his concerns with the Stibnite project. Wheeler's main worry is the fate of endangered salmon that return from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho waters to spawn.
"Generally, there are five-year-old fish coming back to the area. And so, it's truly important we keep that water as clean, fresh and as cold as possible for them because they have a gauntlet to go through. Dams, reservoirs, predation," he said.
As more mining companies seek to become active, there are sustainability consultants that try to focus the firms on being environmentally responsible. For example, amber Bieg of Warm Springs Consulting says a newer wrinkle in mining is to make sure firms prepare for forecasted scenarios of climate change.
"You know, rain on snow events in the mountains, where you might have a bunch of water flowing over a site all at once — Atmospheric rivers, like we've seen up in Vancouver — those types of things, can be a huge risk to a mining operation," Bieg told WUWM.
While the discussions about expanded mining mainly take place more than a thousand miles west of Wisconsin, electric vehicle driver Ben Nelson of Oconomowoc says he pays attention to the debate. Nelson and other Drive $mart Wisconsin members recently gathered for a meet-up in Greenfield. Standing next to his new Chevy Bolt, Nelson said yes, EVs do require resources to build them.
"But so do gasoline cars, diesel cars. The important thing is we use our resources appropriately," Nelson said.
Nelson pointed to the electricity used by oil refineries to make gasoline, and the pollution linked to extracting crude oil and putting it in pipelines and rail cars.
Environmental groups hope one way to reduce the number of new mines needed for the EV and renewable energy revolution is to develop more recycling of the metals — the way communities all over the U.S. recycle aluminum cans.