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By J. P. Tangen
Special to Mining News 

The future of mining in a changing world

Now is not the time for essential services such as mining to be interrupted by arbitrary technocratic statutory interpretations

 
Series: COVID-19 coverage | Story 11

Last updated 3/26/2020 at 11:52am

Geologist social distancing while exploring the Ambler Mining District Alaska

Bonnie Broman

Social distancing is a normal day of field work for Alaska geologists, such as this one investigating outcrop on Ambler Metals' Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects. Once the snow melts, these geologists hope to practice their self-isolation by investigating the state's vast mineral potential.

In the current environment, it is difficult to avoid discussing the elephant in the room. Essentially, we need to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect mining activities in Alaska in the near and long term.

While misinformation and speculation about the disease is rampant, some basic facts seem indisputable – the disease is highly contagious, infected people are often asymptomatic, and there does not appear to be any approved anti-viral available yet.

The control mechanism of choice currently is to reduce the rate of infection by requiring as many people as possible to limit unnecessary social contact. Our society, however, is based on the distribution of goods and services; therefore, the standstill orders that government leaders have put into place are effective against only about a quarter of the population.

Everyone still needs to eat, and that implies that grocery stores need to be supplied, wholesalers need suppliers, and suppliers need basic commodities from farmers. All of those steps require mechanical equipment, which require manufacturers, which require metals and power, which all require basic commodities.

To attend to the ill and infirm, health care workers, in short supply during the best of times, are totally dependent upon the availability of everything from food and medicine to testing and monitoring equipment. All such items are on the receiving end of our sophisticated supply and distribution system.

Basic commodities, whether necessary for human consumption or preparing consumables, all come out of the ground. Axiomatically, if it cannot be grown, it must be mined. Alaska is a state rich in mineral commodities; and, therefore, by definition, miners provide essential services.

Historically, the United States has weathered catastrophic events successfully. Wars, pandemics and depressions are all a part of our portfolio. The Twentieth Century had its full share of social nightmares, and things were much worse in the Nineteenth Century. Ineffective government responses in the face of overwhelming crises are the norm. While it is easy to criticize our leadership, in the long view, the only salvation that has ever worked is the passage of time. We will muddle through.

The sole remaining question, therefore, relates to what we do in the interim to survive the tempest. The proximate answer is to protect the supply and distribution of basic commodities.

As Abraham Lincoln said, "[t]ell the miners from me, that I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability because their prosperity is the prosperity of the Nation...".

With the Legislature just about out the door and the Governor on the ropes, the current emergency requires us to recognize that government might be a part of the solution, but it most certainly cannot be the cause of the problem.

Ironically, in Alaska at least, most mining operations are in remote locations. Maintaining a socially responsible distance is commonplace. As the weather clears and the field season begins, a parade of productive people will head for the hills.

Whether they will be armed with the permits and other necessities to do their job depends on whether what they do is deemed "essential." It seems obvious that it is.

Accordingly, to the extent that regulators have theoretical concerns about technical compliance with the finer points of statutory demands, it may behoove our leaders to suspend enforcement of abstract concerns in favor of fostering the basic engines of prosperity.

The instant disruption will run its course, and indubitably the world will be a better place despite the immediate hardships. For those who survive it, the light at the end of the tunnel will be a new world built on the foundation of the present experience.

Already, we are proving that many familiar activities, whether concerts or sporting events, church services or business meetings, can be satisfactorily experienced remotely. The Internet has changed the world. Education and entertainment can readily take place safely at home.

Remote access means less traffic. Less traffic means less pollution. Less pollution means less global warming. The remedy, therefore, for all of our problems is to stay home and reserve face-to-face communications for your family. And lest I forget, wash your hands. Soap kills COVID-19.

 

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