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Women's Mining Coalition - Group advocates for a strong and sustainable mining industry
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Women's Mining Coalition - Group advocates for a strong and sustainable mining industry

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It can be a long way from Washington, D.C. to a mine site. The issues involved in mining can seem pretty abstract to a legislator shuffling through papers, even though mining provides the materials for their cell phones and so many of the tools and materials which they rely on daily.

That’s why a group of women from the Women’s Mining Coalition fly to Washington D.C. each year to visit with legislators and other professionals. The women with the WMC give legislators the opportunity to visit with people who actually work in the mining industry.

“We’re really passionate about what we do and how important these careers are to us. I think that’s why we’re effective as a group talking to legislators,” said WMC President Sara Thorne.

The WMC’s 28th annual fly-in to Washington, D.C. is coming up this spring. Last year, a group of nearly 40 women spent three and a half days in Washington, and had 251 face-to-face meetings with people in congressional offices, as well as meetings with people at the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“We have typically between 40 to 50 women from around the United States representing everything from the hard rock mining industry to coal that go visit with the legislators and educate them on issues that are potentially affecting our industry.” Thorne said. “We support and advocate for a strong domestic mining industry, which is vitally important to our nation, our communities, our families, and our livelihood. We educate the legislators because our country depends on mining. And today’s regulations and modern technologies ensure responsible stewardship of our lands.”

“Our core mission is that we’re advocating for a sustainable mining industry.”

The start of WMC

The Women’s Mining Coalition started in 1993 when Ruth Carraher and two other women decided to make a trip to Washington, D.C. That year mining law reform was being discussed, and a lot of women had been newly elected to Congress.

“There were three of us, Kathy Benedetto, Debbie Struhsacker and myself, who got together and said we should go tell these new women members of congress about mining,” Carraher said. “I was working for Coeur at the time and their CEO said this is a great idea, and arranged for Kathy, Debbie and me to meet with a gentleman who was lobbying for the mining industry in Washington, D.C. And so, since 1993 we been going back to discuss issues that are important to the mining industry.”

“That first trip, almost every office said, ‘Gee, there are women working in the mining industry?’ And we still hear some of that. If you live in northeastern Nevada, you know more about the mining industry. But if you live in an area that has absolutely no mining, you only have visions of the past, mining from 20-mule-team Borax days type of thing.”

Two women in mining

Carraher worked for major and junior mining and exploration companies for more than 30 years, and she is now an independent consulting geologist exploring for metals.

“I do exploration for minerals, mostly gold and silver, but also some lithium,” Carraher said. “I always liked rocks as a kid. I decided in college to major in geology. At that time I would never have expected I’d end up working this many years as an exploration geologist, but it’s been great. I’ve worked in Nevada mostly, but also in the Western United States, plus Mexico, Bolivia and Argentina, and I lived in China for a while.

“I’m still out there doing what we’d call prospecting and taking a look at under-explored areas with our new exploration techniques and new understanding of ore deposits.”

Thorne graduated from San Diego State University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology. She got involved with mining when she started working with Fronteer Gold’s Long Canyon project between Wells and Wendover in 2008. She is now a senior permitting manager at Coeur Mining.

“My introduction to mining was at the exploration phase, working at the Long Canyon project,” Thorne said. “I was working as a biologist for a consulting firm. I got to see that mountain, all the steep slopes and the juniper forests, before there were any roads or drill sites out there, getting out ahead of the equipment, to make sure there weren’t any active bird nests in harm’s way.

“It was exciting watching the geologists as they were logging the core, and evaluating it, even before it got sent off to be assayed. You could tell the amount of enthusiasm they had, that this was something extraordinary and very special to them. I’ll never forget that day, when they brought in the core from near the center of the area where the open pit is being mined now. … They pulled me into their core trailer, and they were like hey, look at this. I only wish I was a geologist and I really knew how truly magnificent it was, what I was looking at.”

“Once they had gotten the assays back, and they announced that Newmont was making an offer to purchase it, then you know that’s a really big deal.

“I would consider that to be a milestone in my career, and what really got me anchored into wanting to spend my career in mining.

“Being a part of that project’s evolution from discovery, much like what Ruth is focused on, to production, and being able to add my expertise to the team that helped get the Long Canyon mine permitted and into production, was a big accomplishment.

“I went into this line of work to ensure that our environment is safe and that reclamation is successful, and that’s what the current focus is of my position with Coeur Mining. And this experience carries over into what we do with the Women’s Mining Coalition.”

“That experience Sara had,” Carraher said, “or I’ve had out in the field doing work, when we take these experiences to our legislators - which is what the Women’s Mining Coalition is about - is giving a face to the mining industry. You can express to them the enthusiasm. You can express to them how much hard work somebody like Sara has put into doing the surveying to make sure all the rules and regulations are followed to protect things such as wildlife species, or mitigate areas with potential erosion problems.”

“The challenge is always there for us, and being able to express the consequences of proposed legislation to legislators both at the state and federal level is very important to the mining industry as a whole.”

Thorne commented she feels very lucky to have been involved with an exploration project which developed into a mine, since so few exploration projects actually become a mine. Carraher commented she, too, was involved in a successful exploration project at Jerritt Canyon.

“Both of us were quite fortunate, I think, in being on the ground at a couple of discoveries here in Nevada,” Carraher said.

“A lot of people spend their whole careers in the industry trying to be part of something like that, and the fact we were both able to have that experience in our careers is really special,” Thorne said.

Visiting Congress

Today, there are several parallels to the way things were when Carraher and other women made their first trip to Washington, D.C. in 1993. Legislators are again considering mining reform, and a lot of women have been newly elected to Congress.

“This congress has the highest percentage of women lawmakers ever to have been elected to Congress,” Thorne said. “So we look forward as women to talking to them and their staffs about the importance of mining.”

“I think we still see that a lot of offices we go in, they don’t see many people that are working in the mining industry, who actually work at a mine, or do exploration for minerals. So it’s refreshing I think for them to be able to see women who are actually doing work on the ground.”

Carraher said last spring when they visited with legislators who are pushing for a greener economy, the legislators did have some sense of the importance of mining.

“There wasn’t an office I went into that didn’t share some concerns they had with where all the minerals are going to come from for the new technology we need, for generating electricity in a green economy. So it was refreshing, actually. It doesn’t mean anything will change fast, but it was refreshing to see that they understood mining is a big part of our modern society.”

“Again, they don’t have a real grasp on how long it takes to go out, explore for and make that discovery, but they can see the need for it.”

“There’s a big disconnect in Washington D.C. with the products which are actually being produced from mining,” Thorne said. “Much like the disconnect we have when we go to the grocery store and we buy a gallon of milk. It’s there, we buy it, we drink it, we benefit from it, and we don’t think about where it comes from.”

“The issues right now with critical and strategic minerals and renewable energy development are things we’re facing in the US and around the world. It takes mining to produce the materials in order for us to have infrastructure development and improvement as well as renewable energy infrastructure. So if we can mine those metals in the U.S., and we can mine the majority of them here, if we can get funding and get them permitted and if it’s economical to operate in the United States, then not only do we have the benefits from those materials but we have the benefits from the direct and the indirect jobs. Then we also have the benefits from being able to manufacture those products in the United States.”

“When we make these trips to Washington, D.C. we often bring graphics with us showing things like, ‘what’s in your cell phone?’ And I think people are really surprised that those products are mined and they’re not grown from vegetables.

“Our medical technology is a fantastic example of things which are mined,” Thorne said. “All of the equipment in the hospitals used for our health and to advance our medical technology, all come from mined products. So if we can mine them here in the U.S. with some of the strictest environmental and safety regulations in the world, then it seems that’s the way we should be doing things. And really that’s our mission and what we’re advocating for, because a lot of folks just aren’t educated on where things come from.”

“They’re not educated on where the needed minerals come from,” Carraher said, “and they need to see that if we want to be able to manufacture cell phones here, we can mine some of the material needed for those cell phones right here, creating jobs, creating the supply chain right here in the United States to help the economy. Otherwise, basically we are just exporting jobs and exporting the generation of new wealth.”

Over the years, in addition to talking about the mining industry and the effect of proposed legislation, the members of the Women’s Mining Coalition have also assisted and provided expert testimony for members of Congress and caucuses.

Mining law reform

Back in 1993 when Carraher made her first trip to Washington, D.C., Congress was working on mining law reform. Hardrock mining operates under the Mining Law of 1872. With this law, the U.S. does not collect a royalty on the production value of hard rock minerals extracted from public lands. While the the U.S. does collect a 12.5 percent royalty on coal, oil and gas, there is no royalty legislated by the 1872 Mining Law. Since hard rock mining is governed by a law that is nearly 150 years old, talk about reforming the mining law comes up on a regular basis in Congress.

Carraher said that when mining law reform was discussed in the early 1990s, “the mining industry worked with many of the delegations, especially the western states, and came up with something acceptable to the mining industry.”

The mining law developed in the early 1990s included a five percent “net proceeds” royalty on future mining operations on public lands.

This mining law became part of the fiscal year 1995 budget reconciliation bill which President Bill Clinton vetoed in Dec. 1995.

Of course, some people criticized the 1995 mining law for not going far enough. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said in 1999, when he was introducing new mining reform proposals, that the law vetoed in 1995 “provided so many exorbitant and absurd loopholes that most mines could have avoided paying the royalty.”

Carraher said, however, that the early 1990s mining law was a good compromise, and it’s unfortunate it ended up getting vetoed.

“It really is too bad, because the fact is, had it been passed, had he signed it, then they would have been collecting royalties the mining industry would have accepted because mines would have been able to continue to operate and would have been profitable,” Carraher said.

Currently, some members of Congress are promoting Rep. Raul Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019. This bill includes a 12.5 percent royalty on production from new hard rock mining operations.

The American Exploration & Mining Association has called Grijalva’s legislation “a disaster in the making for the domestic mining industry and for America.”

“The fact is, hardrock mining is fundamentally different than oil, gas, and coal because it is much more difficult to find and develop hardrock mineral resources,” AEMA said in a press release.

Grijalva’s bill is “really a nonstarter for the mining industry,” Carraher said. “The 12.5 percent on new mines means new mines probably won’t fly economically. And the eight percent on existing mines really puts many, if not most, in jeopardy.”

“It would really limit exploration and mining in the US,” Carraher said. “Right now with the large amounts of minerals and materials we import from other countries that we could be producing here, this proposed legislation would only make it worse. I’ve been involved with a lithium property, and we could be mining lithium in the United States, but we’re not mining it here because it’s easier for companies to invest in mining lithium in South America, or in other nations. The same with rare earths, where China is controlling everything. They’re mining it, and they’re controlling the processing of it. Grijalva’s bill would make it even harder to produce needed minerals in the USA.”

One week after the WMC’s Washington, D.C. fly-in last spring, the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on mining law reform, and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) during his opening remarks used a handout which the WMC members had given him on how many mined commodities have to be imported to the United States.

“It was really neat to be watching a hearing live from Washington, D.C. on my computer screen in Nevada and see one of the graphics we had just handed out at the fly-in,” Thorne said.

Grijalva’s bill was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee 21-13, largely on party lines. There were two crossovers. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) voted against the bill, and Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) voted for it.

“Certainly we do appreciate the fact that Rep. Horsford from district 4 voted against the Grijalva bill,” Carraher said. “And I think it is because Rep. Horsford understands he’d like to see the supply chain here for these metals and minerals we need for both national security and to move to different energy sources.”

Grijalva’s bill is expected to be approved in the House, but it probably will not be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“But the fact is the Grijalva language will come up again in another session,” Carraher said. “So we all need to be paying attention to what this will mean to the state of Nevada.”

“We’re going to keep going out with the Women’s Mining Coalition and doing everything we can to educate these folks on the importance of mining,” Thorne said. “And hopefully as we continue to circulate that message, it will help calm the appetite for bills like this in the future.”

The permitting process

Thorne said each year before the Women’s Mining Coalition makes the fly-in visit to Washington, D.C., the group decides which key issues they will be focusing on. One priority they focus on each year is permit streamlining in the United States.

“We have a very lengthy environmental permitting process,” Thorne said. “We appreciate the complexity of it because this is our backyard and we want to do the best we can for sustainable mining and making sure we’re doing things within the regulations. So we don’t want to cut corners on any of the regulations, but we think we could significantly shorten the amount of time it takes to get a permit.

“With the length of time that takes in the United States, it affects our industry from the top down because our executives have a hard time finding the funding and investment it takes to get projects to operating mines. And investors would rather invest their money somewhere else, like China, for instance, where they’re going to get a quicker return on their investment. So permit streamlining is always a big focus of the legislative challenges we’re working on.”

Carraher said some changes have been made which help to speed the process up.

“There was a time when if it had to go to 30 different desks, it went to one at a time,” Carraher said. “Here it was on this desk, and it could sit for three weeks, and then it was on to the next desk. Now they can put them on all 30 desks at the same time, so instead of taking six months to have a review, maybe it will only take two weeks. So it’s not about cutting corners at all, it’s about being efficient.”

Thorne said she thinks more people need to be working on the permitting processes.

“I definitely think the federal agencies need more personnel,” Thorne said. “Especially in Nevada, on our federal lands, where a lot of these projects are being permitted, those offices are largely understaffed or they’re even advertising for positions and they can’t fill them. And because Nevada is one of the biggest mining states in the United States, there’s a big workload here for processing permits on public lands. So you find a lot of times in these offices, maybe there’s one archaeologist for an entire office and they have a stack of 30 permits on their desk, and that isn’t their sole responsibility, either. They’re also responsible for if there’s a wildland fire, being out on the fire in front of the fire crews, trying to keep historic preservation in place.”

“I definitely think inadequate staff is a really large problem, and it seems like rather than giving the funding to the government agencies to hire an adequate level of staff, that funding keeps getting cut more and more every year.”

The current administration has placed time limits on some permitting processes, but Carraher said inadequate staffing remains a problem.

“When you don’t have enough people, you can’t increase your efficiency,” Carraher said. “So even if you’re supposed to, if you’ve got one person where maybe you need three, it just can’t be done.”

Women in mining

Along with helping people involved in government to have a better understanding of the mining industry and its importance, the Women’s Mining Coalition also helps women learn about the opportunities for careers in mining.

“As an organization we’re reaching out to universities and trade schools and we’re trying to get them to join the Women’s Mining Coalition,” Thorne said. “This helps develop interest in the industry and the variety of careers which are available in the industry. And it also provides women with a network and job possibilities by helping them get to know people working in the industry. We’ve got everything in our organization from engineers to heavy equipment operators, to environmental managers, to financial analysts, and the list goes on.”

Although years ago women were prohibited from entering some mines, and the industry has long been male dominated, Thorne and Carraher said they have not encountered much bias as women in the industry.

“I must say, the very first job I applied for, somebody said no women,” Carraher said. “But that’s OK. It’s been all great since then. I’ve worked with a lot of groups, companies where the men and other women there were terrific. Always supportive, always collaborative, always wanting to do the best job on a project that you can.

“I think it’s a great job for women, no matter what they want to do in the industry.”

Carraher said she has seen situations where a woman’s decision to step into the mining industry has been a transformative experience.

“There was one woman who had five children, her husband had left her, she was working two, three, four jobs to make ends meet,” Carraher said. “And then she got a job driving haul truck at a mine, and all of a sudden her children had health insurance, and dental and eyewear, and four of them got scholarships to college. I mean, it changed her life. And what else was she going to do in a rural community? Or actually, what would she have done if she was in an urban area? The same sort of thing. A bunch of jobs just to make ends meet. So for some of the women working in the mining industry, it’s totally turned their life around.”

Asked about what thoughts they would share with young women considering a career in the mining industry, Carraher said, “For me it would be it’s been great career and life. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

“I think we should encourage people to go for the gold,” Thorne said. “There’s really a diverse and profitable range of careers in the mining industry. I started my career working in construction and development. If I would have gone right out of school into a mining industry career, I think it really would have advanced my career a lot more quickly. I didn’t know opportunities in mining were available at the time.

“Now that I understand these opportunities are available, I talk to people every chance I get and let them know what a great industry it is to work for.”

The number of women working in mining has been growing over the years, but the percentage is still quite low. Dana Bennett, the recently retired president of the Nevada Mining Association, wrote in 2016, “In 1965, the U.S. Women’s Bureau found that nearly half of Nevada women were employed, but few worked in mining. Nationally, women made up only 6% of the entire mining workforce. Women were legally barred from working in mining in 17 states. Nevada was not one of those, but it did restrict the hours that women could work, thus limiting their availability to accept shift work in mines.

“Fast forward 50 years. Many of the laws that constrained women’s labor choices are now gone, but many of the notions about women’s abilities persist. The percentage of women employed in mining remains low, despite many studies demonstrating that businesses prosper when women are included among their hourly and executive employees.

“Change has come but slowly. A recent study of Nevada Mining Association members found that only 14% of the mining workforce is female. Of the mining professionals (such as engineers and geologists), only 19% are women; of all field operations, only 11% are women. Another study discovered that women make up only 5% of all haul truck drivers.”

A May 2019 story by Linda Doku said, “According to Bloomberg, the proportion of women employed by mining companies sits at around 15.7%, up only 1% in the past five years.”

Thorne said she thinks the number of women in mining will continue to increase. She said at Coeur Mining, where she works, “Overall 12% of our population are women, but in 2018, 15% of our new hires were women. So that’s actually a pretty big increase. And of our female employees 62% are in operations and/or technical roles. We have a development program, and 33% of our development program participants are women.

“I think we’re really going to start to see that trend change faster in the next 10 years, especially as all of the companies are recognizing a lot of our workforce is between 45 and 55, and we have a lot of folks approaching retirement.”

At a Nevada Gold Mines update meeting for the public on Aug. 7, 2019 in Elko, Barrick Gold Corp. CEO Mark Bristow made the comment, “I always say women are much better drivers. I can tell you that for a fact. Those big trucks … they handle them better than men. And we’ve got the statistics to prove that.”

When asked about that comment, both Thorne and Carraher laughed, and said they have heard similar comments. Carraher said people at one of the northern Nevada mines told her “they would love to have more women equipment operators because the women are more dependable and they treat the equipment better, but also pay attention to the equipment more, so things are fixed quickly instead of really going downhill.”

At that August meeting Bristow also commented professional women have to work harder than professional men, partly because they have to deal with prejudice. Thorne and Carraher said, however, they have not really experienced this kind of prejudice.

“I do think I work hard, but the people around me work hard, too,” Carraher said.

“I think we’re representing a modern mining industry,” Thorne said, “and with the industry being forward looking, we work around people who have good attitudes, and they want to work with the best team possible. So if people are qualified, and that’s who makes up the team, then everybody benefits.”

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