When people buy jewelry, theyre not thinking of putting it to any practical use.
Sure, there were times when Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford used his wedding ring to gouge the baseball and make it to do baffling things on its way to the plate until the umpires got wise to his extralegal technique. But that utilitarian use of jewelry was a rare exception.
No, we value jewelry largely for its symbolic meaning. Your wedding ring should remind you of lifes best moments.
Symbols carry an emotional punch. That explains why some of the nations leading jewelers are speaking out against the proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska.
Jewelers are in the business of selling dreams, encapsulated in minerals dug out of the ground. Tiffany, Ben Bridge, and three other jewelry retailers have announced opposition to the mine and a vow not to source any gold from it. They want customers for their gold jewelry thinking of love and hope, not tailings dumps and water pollution.
The proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine would lie on state land at the headwaters of rivers flowing into Bristol Bay, a world-renowned commercial and sport salmon fishery.
Bristol Bay produces hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commercially and sport-caught fish per year. Few places on earth rival Bristol Bay as a generator of renewable, natural wealth.
Its a hell of a place to put a mine.
The proposed mine would include a two-mile-wide open pit to get at the low-grade ores, which lie in sulfide deposits that can produce acid mine drainage.
Billions of tons of tailings would be stored in impoundments surrounded by earthen embankments constructed of waste rock. One of the embankments would be 740-feet high and 4.3 miles long nearly as high as Oroville Dam in California, Americas tallest, and longer than Fort Peck Dam in Montana, Americas longest.
There are numerous potential hazards.
The open pit will fill with water after the mine closes. The pit lake water could be tainted by mineral decomposition and migrate off site via subterranean pathways.
Water that contacts rock in the mines underground portion could send acid mine drainage into surface and subsurface water channels.
Most worrisome, the embankments holding the tailings would have to stand forever in an area of known seismic hazards. What if the dams break? As geophysicist David Chambers wrote in an analysis of the mine sites geology, the probability of such a catastrophic failure is very low, but the consequences should it occur are very high.
To keep such a disaster from happening, the impoundments would have to be maintained in perpetuity. But the state of Alaska allows mining companies to put up only a corporate guarantee that the site will be taken care of.
The impacts of hardrock mining on watersheds elsewhere are well documented. Pebbles developers, Northern Dynasty Minerals and Anglo-American, insist that their mine will be different. Environmental safeguards will be state of the art, the companies say.
Maybe so. But with a hardrock mine operating at such an enormous scale, coupled with the need to watch over it till the end of time, the odds go up that Murphys Law will trump the developers stated good intentions. Even Senator Ted Stevens, the bete noir of conservation, has his doubts.
The Pebble Mines dangers to water, fisheries, and scenic beauty are real. But something more is at stake. If a project with such high risks cant be kept out of a natural area with such high value, that would be a powerfully symbolic commentary on our ability to manage our appetites, be good stewards, and protect what conservative scholar Russell Kirk called the permanent things.
Symbols matter, as the jewelers who sell golden dreams know very well.
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