The mining history of Leadville, Colorado, is well documented and the details are left to the reader to pry out of the internet. As a process chemist, my interest in mining is more directed to the geochemistry and milling of the ore. How did they get the pay out of the paydirt?

How does it come about that we can get our hands on particular elements like molybdenum, gold, silver, uranium, tungsten, vanadium, etc? How do the elements manage to concentrate into ore bodies that are worth the effort and expense to refine?

When you take the various mine tours around the country, the spiel offered by the guide is usually geared toward the lowest common denominator- our fascination with fabulous wealth. The miners were certainly taken with the possibility of wealth. Gold and silver mines are an easy sell because everybody has greed and everybody yearns to pluck a fat nugget of gold from a pan of gravel.  Other types of mines are a tougher sell entertainment-wise and require a bit more explanation of the relevance of the obscure element that is being extracted.

Mining is an activity with good and bad effects. To sustain modern civilization, if you can’t grow what you need, you have to mine it. Mining is inherently extractive in nature and requires that large volumes of earth be disturbed. Open pit mining requires that overburden be removed and the mineral value be moved to a processing site. Material sidestreams are generated and must be dealt with. 

Underground mines also generate large volumes of material that must be piled somewhere. To ensure responsibility for reclamation costs mining companies are required to put up a surety bond to cover the costs of future reclamation under 43 CFR section 3809.

The inevitable trade-off that a society must make is one of environmental insult for material goods. The balance point is always hard to find, and in fact is usually a moving target on account of politics, employment, and environmentalism.

Mining can have substantial effects on the landscape, the watershed, real estate, and the future tax base. Land that is not available for habitation or sustainable commercial use is fundamentally limited in potential value. An area covered with mine tailings, mine shafts, the occasional blasting cap, and acidic runoff is an area that requires cash infusion on a long timescale.

But if we enjoy the benefits of lead batteries in our cars, or silver jewelry, tungsten elements in our light bulbs, zinc plated wire fences, or the ten thousand other metal products in our lives, we must come to grips with the consequences for having such material goods. At some stretch point, everybody becomes a Luddite. Question: How much technological triumphalism can we take? Answer: Whatever the market says we can take.  

Runoff Collection Pond from Mine Tailings in Leadville Mining District.

Runoff Collection Pond from Mine Tailings in Leadville Mining District.

Our society has benefitted greatly from metallurgy. The compulsion to recover metals from the ground is one of the great economic forces in civilization. No amount of highminded pontification will stop it. Metals enable industry and war which are forever entangled in politics and greed. The goal is to be smart about how we mine elements from the ground so that maximum value of the surrounding land may be enjoyed. The enthusiasms of the time come and go. But metals are forever.

Mine Waste, Leadville Mining District August 2009

Mine Waste, Leadville Mining District August 2009