On the afternoon of Sept. 12 in Patagonia, more than 30 people beat drums and hoisted homemade signs along State Route 82 in protest of Arizona Mining’s operations in the nearby mountains. A short distance away on the campus of Patagonia Schools, the company was preparing to tell the public about its plans to transition from exploratory drilling to an active mining project.
One of demonstrators, 40-year-old Jared Krikorian, said he moved from the East Coast to Patagonia seven years ago because he enjoys the small town’s peace and quiet. He’s worried that a mine would negatively impact the town’s traffic, eco-tourism industry, and air and water quality.
“With this being my home, I just don’t want it to be necessarily in my residence,” Krikorian said.
Since Arizona Mining – then known as Wildcat Silver – first purchased land in the Patagonia Mountains in 2006, local grassroots organizations and residents like Krikorian have protested the opening of a mine, arguing it would harm the local environment and quality of life.
Scientists specializing in minerals and mining say this reaction is understandable given that the project would impact locals and that mining, including in the Patagonia Mountains, has a history of causing environmental problems and failing due to economic challenges.
Some of the argument also echoes the “not in my backyard” attitude toward controversial development that is common enough to have earned its own – albeit somewhat pejorative – acronym: NIMBY.
But given the global demand for minerals, if not in Patagonia’s backyard, where should mining occur? While some of those against the mine suggest extraction should be limited to unpopulated areas without the Patagonia Mountains’ biodiversity, scientists like Joe Barton, a University of Arizona geologist specializing in economics and minerals, say it’s not that simple.
“You can’t go somewhere else and find that amount of zinc, lead and silver in most places,” he said. “It’s not as if you can pick the geology up and move it to some other place.”
Krikorian, who recognized that nearly everyone uses items such as cars and cell phones that rely on mined materials, said while he isn’t sure where a better place to mine would be, he wondered why Arizona Mining, a Canadian-based company, wasn’t mining in Canada.
Mining should occur in places where it doesn’t have such a big impact on nearby towns, said Jerri Sober, a 70-year-old Patagonia resident and member of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA), a mining watchdog group. In addition to her concerns about water use, Sober said the mine’s dynamiting will cause “noise pollution, dust and stuff in the area, dirt, and it’s going to be, in my mind, unlivable.”
Joe Nitsche, a 63-year-old PARA board member who lives near Patagonia, told the NI this week that mines should be built “where water isn’t as scarce, someplace that doesn’t have the unique characteristics of the Patagonia mountains – they’re incredibly diverse in terms of the birds and animals.”
Fellow board member Nancy Coyote, a 62-year-old resident of the Mowry area outside of Patagonia, said extracting minerals isn’t necessary at all. “They’re in end products that can be reclaimed, reused, recycled,” she said.
Barton said that while putting more effort into recycling minerals is possible, growing demand for minerals in developing countries like China and India still makes mining necessary.
“This is perfectly ordinary, it’s not in the least surprising,” said Donald Burt, a geologist who specializes in mining at Arizona State University, when asked about opposition in Patagonia to mining. “Metal prices go up, some company wants to go up and see if they can reopen a mine, and the people who’ve moved in since the miners left object. You could find a thousand examples if you looked hard enough.”
It’s natural for people to resist change and construction projects, like local residents did when Dollar General moved to open a store in Sonoita, or how other communities have reacted to new wind farms, Burt said. He added that opposition to mining in Arizona is reasonable, given that some old mines are still damaging the environment and that new ones could run out of money, leaving behind empty drill sites and half-built roads.
Still, Burt noted the core dilemma.
“Everyone’s willing to drive a car, but no one worries where the metals come from,” he said.
Barton made a similar argument, saying: “Everybody would like materials to come from someplace that doesn’t impact something they care about.”
If mines don’t open near towns, he said, then they may be pushed into wilderness areas that conservationists are trying to protect from extraction.
Raina Maier, director of the UA’s Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining, said that one argument in favor of mining in the United States is that the country has some of the toughest mining-related environmental laws in the world.
“So do you want mining to take place in a country that has strict regulations and rules, or do you want it to take place in a country that doesn’t and where you know that the consequences will be much greater?” she asked.
“A lot of things need to be weighed in deciding where to put a mine,” Maier said, noting that legitimate environmental concerns need to weighed against the fact that you can’t just mine anywhere.
“You have to have a rich ore body,” she said.
In the end, Maier said, states and local communities should make decisions about opening a mine after conducing a cost-benefit analysis based on all available information and research.