I live in a mining town. Technically, a former mining town. From 1903 to the late 1980’s, silver mining was the name of the game in the Town of Cobalt and Coleman Township. Our house sits on the Nipissing 404 Mine property – one of the largest producers in the area. The view from any window reveals evidence of the former industry. Bare slopes of rocky hills, gaping gouges on the landscape, rusting and ragged ruins. These are all good things, by the way. I need to make that clear. I love this place and the story that contributes to the post-mining state.
However, I have to admit it: I’m torn when it comes to debating the pros and cons of mining. First and foremost, how can we live without it? You are reading this post on an instrument that is the product of mining. The industry has certainly improved in terms of the health and well-being of the “stakeholders,” that is, those who will benefit or suffer directly or indirectly from the extraction of mineral resources. Let’s not forget the fact that before retirement, Reiner worked as a mine geologist. I planned to work as a mine technologist. Our bread was buttered thanks to mining.
Historically, mining practices were notorious in terms of the complete disregard for the environment and for the health and welfare of the workers. As was the case, here in Cobalt. For example, the Nipissing 404 Hill was cleared hydraulically. That is, under high pressure, water was sprayed on the hill to wash away the overburden, thereby revealing the silver veins. Tailings laden with heavy metals, including arsenic, were conveniently deposited into the nearest body of water.
As for the welfare of the mine employee, only after considerable pressure did the organization of Cobalt mine owners erect a mine hospital. For the miner only, mind you. Not for the town, not even for the miner’s family. The governments of the day issued laws to protect the workers, in theory. Application and enforcement of those laws was another matter entirely. The majority of the mine companies were owned by absentee landlords, a great many of them from the United States, and all of them interested only in the bottom line.
During my mining study, I learned about Georg Buar, the mid-16th century author who wrote On the Nature of Minerals, or de re Metallica.
In the first book of the series, Baur discusses the social impact of mining in the context of culture, economics, the environment, and mining practice. He defends mining, and its value to humanity. As he argues his points we get a hint of what it was like to work and live in that time period.
Centuries later, advancements in science and technology have led to improvements in the mining industry. But as far as the social impact of mining, have things changed all that much?
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During Agricola’s time, the age of enlightenment was in its infancy. Most people were unaware of scientific development and for these folk, it was the age of the witch hunt. There were very few schools and those that did exist were religious institutions.
People did not trust mining. They believed that the minerals were hidden underground for good reason. It was wicked to dig them up. Minerals and metals caused trouble. Mining, they said, leads to weapons and thievery. Agricola’s response was “we ought not to blame the metals but transfer all blame to avarice.” In other words, “iron-tipped spears don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Agricola’s frustration is evident on page after page as he tries to convince his readers about the importance of mining. “Look around you!” he seems to say, “How could you live without the these items that are made from metal?
Which is a reasonable question to ask. If you examine the engravings from the period, it is clear that the citizens made good use of metal in their lives.
Regarding environmental impact of mining, Agricola reports that people protested the widespread and unchecked damage. Farm fields and forests were destroyed. Rivers and groundwater were contaminated.
Agricola dismissed the concerns. He claimed that miners dig in remote or unproductive areas. Besides, forests will grow back and people can buy the food and timber they need from the proceeds of mining. He did not explain how the profits of mining would be transferred from the mine owner to the country folk.
In his writing, Agricola details the essential duties of a mine owner. Medicine and the care of mine workers is high on the list. While miners understood the requirement for ventilation, and fire and water safety, mine technology was primitive. Relative to today’s standards, little or no consideration was given to the health and safety of the workers.
In the 21st century, I suppose somewhere on the planet we could find people with superstitious beliefs similar to those who opposed mining in Agricola’s day. For the most part, we are more educated and the gods of our worship are somewhat more benevolent.
To replace those iron-tipped spears, we have bigger, longer-range, and deadlier weapons to deal with the same issues of greed and avarice. Perhaps we haven’t moved away from fear and irrational thought as much as we like to think.
You have likely heard the contemporary phrase used in defense of mining: “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” Resistance to mining is as prevalent today as it was in Agricola’s time. Not because people are afraid of what comes out of the ground, but how it is removed. Today some consider mining a necessary evil and many protests focus on the environmental damage caused by mining.
Working conditions are much improved and machines do the work. As well, governing bodies oversee and regulate mining and employment practice more effectively. All which provide a safer work environment. However, the same risks exist now as then – mine collapse, gas explosions, and careless accidents.
At the end of Book One, Agricola discusses fraud and deceit in mining. “It is complained that some sellers and buyers of the shares in mines are fraudulent. I concede it. But can they deceive anyone except a stupid, careless man, unskilled in mining matters?”
While I agree that investing in the stock market and especially in mines requires due diligence beforehand, I hardly think it fair to blame the victim of a fraud. Many of the people who were deceived by the 1997 Bre-Ex scam were intelligent and understood mining well enough. However, Agricola illustrates yet another mining related issue that prevails today, the same as it did almost 500 years ago.
Have things changed?
Not so much. Improvements in technology, and health and safety, have led to better working conditions for the workers. However, as for the perception of mining, the social issues that were present in Agricola’s day are still present, only on a larger scale.
At the end of Book One, Agricola emphatically states that mining is an honourable profession, but not without its undesirable element, the people who lie, cheat, and steal. However, he notes that it is a human element that is found across all professions.
And, I would suggest, across all time.
Categories: Mining Heritage