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Mining During A Pandemic: Business As Usual Or Nonessential Risk?

An image of a large truck used for mining, standing ten times taller than the person next to it.
Nevada STEM Hub
Every state is wrestling with the tension between reopening economies and protecting communities from COVID-19. Some industries have remained open all along. There are the obvious ones, like grocery stores and hospitals. Then there are others, like mining

Every state is wrestling with the tension between reopening economies and protecting communities from COVID-19. Some industries have remained open all along. There are the obvious ones, like grocery stores and hospitals. Then there are others, like mining.

Mining has been an economic bedrock for the Mountain West's economy for generations.

"If we shut down mining, you're shutting down the most basic economics of the United States," said Jeff Bixler, chief administrator of Nevada's mine safety and training department.

According to Bixler, common portrayals of mining in the American West are outdated.

"You picture the guy with the pick and shovel and a bunch of people working close together. It's not that way today," he said.

Rather, it's high-tech equipment, huge trucks and large open spaces. Bixler said most people don't realize how big mining sites really are, and advancements over time have given miners more space to work.

"Once they're on the mine site, it's pretty easy to do the social distancing and that kind of thing," Bixler said. "It's the transportation that's hard."

An image of an open pit mine.
Credit Nevada Division of Environmental Protection

To help with transportation, companies have leased more vans, buses and trucks to help spread out employees.

Tyre Gray, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said such efforts began before the governor declared a state of emergency. The industry's global reach, he said, meant they were better prepared for COVID-19 because mining companies have dealt with other pandemics.

"As this outbreak was starting to take place, the mining industry was uniquely positioned to be able to call upon its experience with dealing with prior pandemics – like Ebola, H1N1/swine flu – in order to be able to quickly pivot its operation," he said.

Still, Nevada's largest mining company, Nevada Gold Mines, has seen multiple cases of COVID-19. The company's executive managing director, Greg Walker, said they've focused on transportation. They're keeping the same people in the same truck with the same driver.

"We know what shift they're on, we know what transport they've travelled to work on, so we know who they've impacted," Walker said. "We call all of those people, and talk them through it. They self-isolate, and then we monitor them going forward."

Walker added the company also requires everyone to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire, with questions like, "Do you have a fever?" or "Has someone in your home been sick?" In addition, he said they're staggering work start times and increasing cleaning and sanitization.

These measures come at a cost, cutting mines' efficiency. For example, he said 15 to 30 people used to take the mine shaft elevator at a time. Now it's about five to ten.

"So instead of having your crew getting down in 30 minutes, it's now taking us up to three hours," he said.

Walker said the hit in productivity is worth it if it keeps workers off the unemployment rolls.

"If we shut down tomorrow, [there] would be at least 10,000 people unemployed in the immediate area," he said. "That's 7,000 of ours, another 1,500 contractors and there'd be at least another 1,500 small businesses that would have to close [their] doors."

That argument doesn't persuade Ian Bigley, the mining justice organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, or PLAN, a social and environmental justice advocacy group. Bigley said mines can run on skeleton crews for maintenance and still pay the rest of their workers.

"Then you don't have the unemployment issue," said. "There's enough money in this industry to do so."

Some casinos, like the well-known Wynn Resorts, are doing that already, and gaming is the biggest employer in Nevada. Bigley said if casinos can close in Nevada, mines should, too.

"The argument is – with the governor, with construction and mining – it's essential because people need to get paid," he said. "They can still get paid without endangering themselves."

In 2018, the mining industry employed around 52,000 people across our region and contributed more than $346 billion to the nation's gross domestic product.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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