Silver mining has a silver lining | Don Brunell

Remember the old saying, “Out of sight out of mind?” How about, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you?”

Both of these axioms are problematic today, especially when it comes to things we need for our everyday lives.

Here’s why.

Recently, a botched cleanup job by a federal EPA contractor made headlines.  The crew accidentally breached the wall of a containment pond at the Gold King Mine near Durango, Colorado, sending three million gallons of mustard-tinged muck down the Animas River.

Now the EPA has stopped work on 10 old mining ponds to avoid another Gold King disaster and some would use it is as a poster child to simply stop all mining operations.  But in this case, what you don’t know DOES hurt you.

Take silver mining, for example.

Silver has been mined for centuries.  Some may think of it only as a precious metal used in jewelry, coins and silverware. Others use it as a hedge against the collapse of a country’s currency system.  To some, silver’s value to society has diminished over time.  For example, with the advent of digital photography, silver’s use in film processing is largely gone.  And dentists who once used silver for fillings now fill most teeth with porcelain.

But silver is more than that.

Today, we need silver for solar panels, wind turbines, smartphones, super conductors and electronic components.  Lesser known is the fact that, because of silver’s antibacterial properties, it is used in bandages, water purification and treating wood to prevent mold.  Even your cellphone covers are treated with silver to reduce the spread of bacteria. Just as modern technology has evolved, silver mining bears little resemblance to “the old days.”

Mining has changed since the days of booming mining towns like Wallace, Idaho.  Wallace, the town with the last stoplight on the interstate, is the hub of the Silver Valley mining and houses one of the world’s largest silver deposits. More than 1.2 billion ounces of silver has been mined and smelted in that area.

But most of that occurred before the advent of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Silver Valley is dealing with the consequences.  The old silver smelter has been demolished and the area is now an EPA superfund site.  Mining continues in northern Idaho, but on a smaller scale.  

But mines were not alone in irresponsibly dumping waste and causing environmental damage.

Before the Clean Water Act became law, municipal sewerage was routinely flushed into our rivers, lakes and oceans.  At one time, 14 towns and cities in King County discharged 20 million gallons of inadequately treated sewage into Lake Washington every day.  In fact, the cleanup of Lake Washington was a key impetus for the new law.

Behavior that was once routine is no longer tolerated. Today, if someone tries to skirt the law, they are shut down, fined and sometimes sent to jail.The struggle today is that many people still have an image of mining from the old days.  They presume that such metals are not as essential as they once were, and not worth the environmental risk.

The Wallace Chamber of Commerce is attempting to change that perception.  It has set up a visitor center just west of town along an I-90 exit.  The displays detail all that we don’t know about silver mining today and why silver is important in our everyday lives.

While most people will speed by the Wallace visitor center, policy makers need to understand the true value of silver and how prevalent it is in our lives.  Our key competitors around the world do!

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.