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Mining for Reform

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The safe, dramatic and successful rescue of all 33 Chilean miners this past weekend can be summed up in one word: miraculous. The images of the rescued miners, most of which are now iconic, ascending from the bowels of the Earth moved hearts across the globe. Your own blogger choked up for a minute. Or possibly even two. It was a breathtaking display of teamwork and determination between countries (the rescue plan was devised by a company from Kansas), companies (Oakley donated the sunglasses miners used to transition back to sea level) and average citizens. It was all a joyous sight to behold.

Mining: A deadly industry.

Now rack your brain. When was the last mining accident, before Chile, that you remember with a happy ending? The only one that comes to my mind is the Quecreek Rescue in 2002. In a triumphant display, nine miners were pulled to safety after being trapped for days underground in Pennsylvania. A happy ending; much like those brave men in Chile.

But let’s not try to fool anyone here. That was a long time ago. That was eight years ago.

In 2005, an earthquake triggered a gas explosion in a coalmine in Northern China killing over 200 miners. It was, at the time, the country’s worst mining disaster. In Siberia in 2007, over 70 lives were lost when a buildup of methane reached its breaking point and took the mine with it. In 2009, in Heilongjiang, again in Northern China, there was another mine explosion; it ended the lives of over 100 workers. This April, in West Virginia, 29 miners lost their lives to an accident in the Upper Big Branch mine. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States since the 1950s. In May, 90 Russians lost their lives in another mining calamity in Siberia. This list could go on and on and on…and on… well, you get the picture. The happy ending for the Chilean miners and their families is the exception; not the rule.

I raise these, admittedly morbid, incidents because they illustrate the lack of international mining oversight that is needed to safeguard the lives of workers that keep this world running. Too often facts about accidents are swept under the rug by governments. Too often corners are cut at the expense of safety to bolster productivity. Too often people are dying. The worst accidents, unsurprisingly, are happening in developing nations where oversight and regulation are the least stringent and populations, straddling impoverishment, are willing to work in life threatening situations. These are the places that need substantial reform swiftly.*

I am not naive when speaking to the subject of international implementation of norms. Global mining law would inevitably put restrictions on some free market activities and could be called an infringement on sovereignty by countries that are mostly mined by state run/affiliated entities. (I.e. China & Russia.) Understanding this, it will be near impossible (no, definitely impossibe) to set in place codified safety rules that are internationally enforceable. Maybe even a “pipe dream.” But we have to try. We owe it to all 33 Chilean miners. More importantly, we owe it to all of those who have lost their lives in the depths of the Earth.

Until then, though, we will still be hearing the same old disheartening stories. Like we did this week. This time from Ecuador and China.

*I’m not suggesting that the United States does not need urgent reform as well. I believe it does. But on the scale of need, these other locales take priority.

Whitewashing the World

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The Peruvian Andes.

In 2009, the World Bank held an international competition to find “100 ideas to save the planet.” Traditional, cutting edge, unique and crazy; the competition featured breathtaking theories to thwart environmental degradation worldwide. One of the twenty-six winners was Peruvian Eduardo Gold. Mr Gold, an inventor and self-taught glaciologist, had a crazy idea: why don’t Peruvians use natural materials to proactively combat the rapid glacier loss in the Andes? How could they go about doing that? Well Mr. Gold came up with the simplest of solutions: homemade, Peruvian whitewash.

Using only lime, egg white and water, Mr. Gold’s theory on glacial reinstatement relies on the simple fact that white objects are naturally cooler than those that are dark colored. Whitewashing the peaks that are now devoid of their former glacial brilliance will hopefully lead to a continuously incremental temperature drop. The thought is that this will eventually promote the return of the Andes’ glaciers. Simplistic? Maybe. Without merit? Absolutely not. First, the World Bank, out of over 1,500 submissions found enough empirical evidence to award the idea a $200,000 grant. Second, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu endorsed an idea based on the same principle that white produces cold. Sounds crazy, I know, but it’s so simple, it might work.

Worldwide glacial recession is nothing to scoff at. Every continent, from Asia to Antarctica have seen unimpeded and epic glacial loss in the past four decades. An in depth World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report is a cohesive study on the subject. Since the 1980s, Europe’s Alpine glaciers have lost an estimated 10-20%. A remarkable statistic when you think about the magnitude of the geological formations. The highland glaciers of Central Asia – the water source of millions in Western China, Nepal, Tibet – are declining at the astronomical rate of almost 1% annually since the 1970s. This is clearly a ecological disaster waiting to happen. South America, especially Peru, has been specifically hard hit. Of the three major tropical glaciers, almost half of their masses have been lost in the past fifty years; a truly staggering thought.

This is all very controversial. It all just seems too simple. Maybe we should just sit back, see the results of Eduardo Gold’s experiment and hope for the best. A wise and ingenious professor once told me, “The flashpoint of conflict in the coming century will be clean water and clean water sources.” Glacial loss will inevitably contribute to this fact. So think on it, come up with your own solution or tell your friends to brainstorm. In the meantime, whitewash your local peak; you might be saving the earth for future generations.