Today we watched the MET Opera broadcast of Girl of the Golden West by Puccini. It is an all-American, out-of-Italy tale of a mining camp at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California in the old days of the gold rush. Minnie, the owner of the local pub falls in love with the local bandit, much to the consternation of the local sheriff, who also loves the only woman in the mining camp—or the opera for that matter.
We have much great singing, acting, and action. The guns are fired; the fights ensue; a hanging is threatened; there is blood and gore; and there is love and seduction. And at the end, the opera ends happily. The couple get the blessing of the miners, in spite of the bandit status of the tenor, and wonder off arm-in-arm, singing farewell to their beloved California.
I have visited this part of California and seen some of the old mines that probably came after the time of the opera. But their miners too are long gone. Now the area is replete with tourist towns and big properties containing huge houses. Money drips from the golf courses and horse properties, from the wine farms, and the restaurants of ethnic food, never eaten by the miners of yore.
The opera set me thinking about some of the issues of mine closure. For surely Puccini gave no thought to the issue. The opera’s characters too give no thought to tomorrow—they are too wrapped up in love, lust, whiskey, gambling, and the bandit. I could not but help thinking as the music washes over you what these hard-boiled miners would have thought of mine closure had they been asked. Of course they are not the folk to ask anymore than it would be productive today to ask the average laborer on a mine. He will be too busy with seeking gold, getting a check, having a few drinks after work, and watching out for those who cheat.
Then as now, I would have had to go to San Francisco or some other city where the money was controlled, the mines bought and sold, and the big plans formulated. I suspect the answers would be much the same then as now: why bother? We are here to get the gold. Why think of closure? In the old days they could well has replied: how can we come up with a viable, rational closure plan for 100 years hence? Made me wonder where comes our gaul in thinking we can do the same?
For the fact is that mines have been opening and closing from the dawn of time. Some mines have opened, closed, opened, and closed a number of times as the price of gold, platinum, or silver has fluctuated along with economic fortune.
Like taxes and death, mine closure is inevitable. People have flowed to new mines and have left when the mines were forced into temporary closure or the resources were totally depleted. Temporary or premature closure is perhaps hardest on local communities: there is, so to speak, no final closure and lives and careers may be put on hold in the hope of a reopening of the mine. The issue faced by most folk working on and dependent on the mine in the event of mine closure is always: will the mine reopen, when may it start up again, and should we stay or go? This is true whether the mine is “temporarily” shut because of a prolonged strike, or a genuine fall in commodity prices.
On permanent, final mine closure, people know and can plan and act with some degree of certainty. Most will move to new jobs, new mines, new cities. Hopefully there will be other sources of employment in the area and they may do what we would all rather do: stay in their homes, keep the kids in the same schools, and continue to be part of an established community of friends and family.
The stories of mines that closed are many and varied. Some left behind new cities; some left behind fancy ski resorts; and sometimes all that remained was a ghost town.
It is not reasonable to demand that every closing mine leave behind a thriving industrial base. It is reasonable to demand that every closing mine leave behind a landscape where people may continue to live if they so choose—even if the money to live in the selected place comes from far away.
We approach the social dimension of mine closure and the mining company’s obligations in that regard on the basis that we believe the following:
- It is good business practice for a mining company to do the right thing as regards the social obligations when it closes the mine.
- At any rate it is the right and moral thing to do to look to social justice when closing a mine—hence society is well within its rights to demand by way of law, regulation, and contract that a mine prepare for and implement its social-related obligations on mine closure.
- Most mining companies will not be able to pay for the social aspects of mine closure mitigation. Thus society must demand and secure performance bonds adequate to cover the costs of those aspects of mine closure and its impacts commonly labeled the social things.
These silly thoughts coursed through my brain as I enjoyed the opera. I wondered if Puccini’s miners would have conceived of tourist towns, frog-jumping contests, or of three-story houses from which to commute to Sacramento. I suspect they would, as good stakeholders, have suggested whiskey vats, summary justice, gallows, brothels, and accurate scales to weigh the hard-won gold. In the opera, they dream of going home, of parents left behind and dying, and of loved ones who need the money from laboring to get gold. So much for community consultation in those days.
I offer these cynical ideas, for now we are plagued by too much writing based on the concept of a new mine going into a place where there is an old, established, and primitive community that could benefit from the temporary presence of the mine. I was not thus in times past. And it is not always so today. Maybe we need a broader perspective from history, opera, and reality to help us formulate a comprehensive and just philosophy of mining and how societies respond to mines, their opening, operation, and closure. Maybe we need an holistic perspective of society and its needs for mining to supply the means where-with-all to build large houses, golf clubs, and fast trains to Sacramento and San Francisco.
Strange and random thoughts! Now I share them here. Comment please.