Digging Deeper: The Miner Details of a Major Industry

13 May 2013 Digging Deeper: The Miner Details of a Major Industry


Mining provides the resources for many products we use every day. Listen in for a look at the lesser-known people and processes that make up the heart of the operation. No headlamp required.

First aired: Spring Semester, 2013 ·




Picture yourself in a cave. What do you see? It’s dark. You might feel lost or alone, surrounded by rocks and rubble. Here, pop on this headlamp so you can see a little bit of the mysterious space around you. Hope you’re not claustrophobic. Some of the tunnels down here can get a little tight. I hope you’re pretty brave too, because you’re in a mine, and mines, according to the news–

[TV being tuned]

It could be many weeks, even months underground for 33 Chilean miners —

[television tuning]

A gas explosion in a coal mine in Central China has killed 29 miners.

Lead from illegal gold mines is sickening thousands of children.

Deaths at the gold mines have been on the rise.

There was another explosion today in the mines.

It has already killed and cripped more men —

78 men have been trapped for almost ten days —

— an industry more hazardous than any other —

More than 400 kids have already died —

The miners are reported to have died almost instantly.

[television static]

It seems like the only time we hear about mining is when a horrible disaster kills dozens of miners or threatens the safety of the surrounding community. Other than that, mining isn’t really on most people’s radar as something to talk about or care about. On the off-chance it does come up, it likely isn’t considered to be one of the most interesting or exciting industries.

Katherine: I’m Katherine, a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And these are my classmates Holly…

Holly: Hi!

Katherine: …Dirk…

Dirk: Hey!

Katherine: …Reuben…

Reuben: Hey!

Katherine: …and Jordan.

Jordan: Hey!

Katherine: We were all involved in Terrascope, a program which focuses on finding solutions to complex global problems. We were assigned the challenge of finding solutions for the impending shortage of strategic natural resources, which ranged from rare earth and fission elements to phosphorus and platinum. It was no small feat, seeing as these resources are used in technology, energy production, and everyday products. After spending months researching the impacts a shortage of these materials would have, and the role that mining them plays on a global scale, we ended up largely seeing mines as a source of problems and hazards. 


But then, our class visited the deserts of California and Nevada, and got to see some of those mines firsthand. As it turns out, there’s really no such thing as a “typical mine” or “typical miner.” There really is a heck of a lot more to mining than the tragedies that make the nightly news. Long story short, most everything you use every day relies on minerals from mines. 



?? that goes in the microwave that withstands heat

To improve oil recovery

Flat screen televisions

Water softener regeneration

As televisions get thinner, the more boric acid that’s in those screens to make them thin and strong

Rechargeable, lightweight batteries

iPhones, your Galaxy tablets

They all have:



Boric acid

Soda ash


The list just keeps going on and on.

So those are all things you wouldn’t have without mining. But there are tons more, and I’ll bet most of them are more near and dear to your heart than soda ash. Try laptops, wind turbines, hybrid cars, solar panels, household appliances, cellphones, and pretty much everything else that beeps, buzzes, or lights up.

So we know that lots of products depend on material from mines, but what exactly are these mines like?

Welcome to Rockwood Lithium Silver Peak Operations

That was Melissa Jennings, one of the geotechnical engineers of Rockwood. There, we saw a real lithium mine for ourselves. Except we didn’t actually see what looked like any lithium.

You’re gonna go out there and you’re gonna say “where’s the lithium?” because you won’t be able to see it, but it’s in the groundwater.

So there was no actual metal to dig out of the ground. Instead, the land around us was covered in water. As we drove through, we passed by a series of ponds sitting in the desert. Some of them measured more than a mile across. But it wasn’t the size of the ponds that surprised us as much as it was the brilliant blue-green color of the water. These ponds appeared as if they were painted to reflect the color of the cloudless sky. Quite a stark contrast to the arid desert landscapes surrounding them. We asked Hector Maya, a civil engineer who works at Rockwell’s other lithium mine in Chile’s ?? desert why they were so brightly colored. 

As you have a mineral, and you are operating water, some mineral precipitates and these are white salts, so that’s why you see this color here.

And then curiosity got the better of one of us. 

Speaker: Would it be safe to swim in?




No. I don’t think that’s a great idea, no, no.

So with all that water, and all those ponds, it would be challenging to understand the exact path the lithium metal takes to get from start to finish in the mining and refining process. We found out it’s a pretty lengthy journey.


It all starts beneath the ground in aquifers that contain a high concentration of dissolved salts, notably ionic lithium, sodium, and chloride. 

This ion-rich water called brine is then pumped up from the ground and through a series of ponds. As the water sits in the hot desert sun, it slowly evaporates away. Lithium ions get left behind, and combine with carbonate ions to form a solid lithium compound that separates from the remaining water. Dr. Lianne Monk, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Alaska, explains this phenomenon.

Lianne Monk: It likes to stay in solution, so like if you guys have taken a glass of water that’s salty and let it sit out and the water evaporates, you end up with a salt crust, right, in the bottom. So that’s usually sodium chloride and you can see sodium is underneath lithium, so they do have similar geochemical behavior. But the lithium would be an element that would want to stay in that solution till the very last bit.

This evaporative process takes a lot of time and a lot of added chemicals to get to the desired lithium product. 

It takes about two years for brine to come into this first pond, 11 East, and then move around to this pond system and get to the point where it can be produced into lithium carbonate. Two years’ time. 

As you can probably imagine, the lithium mining process is really different from other mining processes. Really different. 

The beige tint of California desert filled the windshield as we drove into the Rio Tinto mine in Boron, California. When we arrived, we learned that the element boron, the town’s namesake, is a component in chemicals called borates. Borates, and borax in particular, are much more common than I thought, appearing in water softeners, glass, soap, and other household products. It really put the mine’s importance in context, as we put on our hard hats and fasten our seatbelts for the descent into the cavernous open pit that was the mine.

[rock music]

Our driver and guide, Quentin Vondo, took us for an in-depth look at the heart of the mining operation. A cool California guy? He didn’t strike me as the miner type. But he sure knew his borax from his tinkle as he explained while we drove down the loud and the bumpy roads.

There is high-quality, one-hundred percent product in our pit with all processing ,it’s 36 percent grade B3, and that is borax. Tank alcanite is not quite borax because it only has 20 to 25 percent B203, so it’s tank alcanite or “tinkle.”

As he talked, I looked out the window into the pit surrounding us, where all that tinkle and borax was buried. The sides look like stairs, each 50 feet high, and streaked with white minerals, waiting to be extracted. A giant water truck passed by us on the other side of the road. 

[truck driving by]

We have two of these water trucks to keep dust emissions down. Those are 20,000 gallon water tanks, so it’s like the size of a swimming pool in there, and it takes about 15 minutes to empty them all. And if you notice that the water trucks spray on the road in intervals, they don’t just lay it on real thick because it’s borax and soap is very slippery. If this was all wet, you’d be slipping down the ramp and get out of control. If it’s raining you have to be very careful. You’ll get out of control. Whole trucks sliding sideways.

I tried to imagine a haul truck sliding down the soapy roads. You see, when Quentin says “haul truck,” he’s talking about your run-of-the-mill pickup truck here. These are mining trucks. And a single tire is nearly 12 feet in diameter, the word “big” seems inadequate to describe them. Quentin told us more.

Their payload is like 140 tons, loaded they haul in between 8 and 12 miles an hour. For the most part. Loaded up a hill, they can only go about three or four miles an hour. Really crawl up the hill. They burn like 40 gallons of fuel an hour. It’s unbelievable.

These monstrous vehicles seem to be the lifeblood of the operation. After miners blast out each new section of mine, minerals are loaded in the haul trucks and carried up to the surface for processing. We saw several haul trucks rumbling past, towering over our little van.

[large truck driving by]

We loved listening to the hearty growl of the massive engines. I really wanted to see a shovel: the machines that dug into the pit and the trucks. We unfortunately weren’t allowed to witness any of the digging. It would slow down the mining operation. We were told they were gigantic, though, pulling ?? tons in a single bucket. But even for an operation this enormous, there was a high degree of precision. High above the towering size of the pit lies a dispatcher, coordinating each vehicle 24/7. 

All thos trucks have high precision GPS plus meter accuracy on these high-precision GPS’s. We know exactly where all of our haul trucks are at every single moment of the day. We run 24/7/365 for the most part. We have someone in that seat kinda overlook the operation all day long. 

With these massive things maneuvering around, I knew that some care had to be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. Quentin first explained a crazy speed limit sign we noticed earlier. Why 37-and-a-half miles an hour, rather than an even 40? Because it’s what people remember. If I were driving, it would’ve stuck in my head. They even had regulations for things that never would have occurred to me. 

We always yield to haul trucks. We have to stay 300 feet back from them. So you see in the burn back there, that white sticking up? I have to be at that white stick and he has to be at the white stick in front of him. We have to stay that distance apart. Those are safety stakes: you know your travelling distance. I always drive so that the driver can see me in his mirror when we’re in the middle of the road. He can see me right now. 

We continued following the haul truck, while Quentin told us another surprising story.

We do have interesting– like, the Mars rover. About five or six years ago, we had people from NASA: scientists, geologists, and engineers of all sorts came in, and they needed to find muds that they thought would be similar to what they drilled on Mars. They came here and they grabbed some clays and they brought them back shales and brought it back to their lab. They wanted something that would gum up the drill bit on the Mars rover. 

And in many ways, Mars might not be too different from the borax pit. It almost was like we were in a different world. Driving ??? feet below the surface, nothing but desert sunlight over your head, monstrous vehicles roaring past. It’s a complex dance of trucks, shovels, and workers, all moving from place to place with a fine-tuned precision, all to get borates mined and ready for use in products we depend on.

Lithium and borax are both dynamic materials that have many uses in very common products. But not all mines produce things we use in our everyday lives. Welcome to Oceanview Mine: a hill speckled with some colorful plants and some orange trees welcomed us to the operation. We became well-acquainted with this hill that houses a visitors center of sorts. A small gift shop lies and a big open space beside it for visitors to try a type of mining for themselves. Below this hill sits a network of tunnels blasted by miners hoping to strike it rich. Mining at Oceanview is a bit of a different game than rockwood lithium or rio ?? ‘s borax mine. Oceanview’s CEO, Jeff Swanger, explains.

This is a specimen mine. We don’t produce commodities.

So what else comes out of the mine? Pretty rocks! Also known as mineral specimens. After all, it’s those glittering gemstones that make up expensive jewelry, and it’s those huge, beautiful crystals that are featured in natural history museums. Gemstones can’t be found everywhere, but they can be found in Palo California, where Oceanview Mine is located. The guys at Oceanview spend a lot of their time looking for concentrated ??, or pockets, of a rock called ???. It comes in many different colors, but the type we encountered most had a pinkish tint. Pegmatite has an indicator for finding valuable gems, but its presence doesn’t necessarily mean that the mine will strike it rich. Jeff informs us that it’s pretty normal to find nothing worthy of notice.

Commodity mines are ?? where the money’s at. When they know how much every ton is gonna bring them. We don’t know when our next museum specimen’s coming. No drilling, no finding. No food, no pay for us. 

But sometimes, the brilliant green and red tourmaline, or sparkling ??, offers a sweet reward for their endeavors.

We sold one recently for $1000 for one crystal. 

We then plunged into the tunnels to see for ourselves. We were thankful for the headlamps we were given because it was completely dark inside. These tunnels form a maze of rocky twists and turns. In comparison to the industrial commodity mines we had previously visited, it felt much less commercial. Instead of haul trucks, we saw what looked like souped-up golf carts. These vehicles dig up Oceanview tunnels that were?? or dug by as far back as the early 1900s. As we descended, Steve Carter, one of the miners, talked about how some of the tunnels came to be.

This tunnel was dug probably a hundred years ago. They always trimmed it; you can see the pick marks on the sides. We don’t do that nowadays so much. They were very meticulous about what they did. It’s a well-done tunnel. 

While the old methods of blasting led to structurally sound tunnels, they did have one problem: height. The ceilings on these tunnels were probably low enough to give some people some neck pains. Steve explained why this worked for the people who used to mine here.

I’m told that the average height of a miner back then was about 5’6’’, 5’7’’, that’s why we’re all stooped over right here. 

Fortunately, the newer blast sites gave a little more headroom. Steve told us how they find the gems in these new tunnels.

If you’re drilling to blast, and all of a sudden you’re in the hard rock and you just plunge forward, you know you’ve plunged into a pocket, so then we blast around it on the outside, drill some extra holes, find out what the shape is. Hopefully, you don’t blow the gems away.

Touring the mines is fascinating, but the coolest part about being at Oceanview was hunting for watermelons. It’s not what you think: we weren’t going around shooting wild watermelons in the jungle. Well, I guess that’s probably not what you were thinking either. Let me explain: part of the draw to Oceanview mine is their unique visitor program. Guests are able to sift through ???, the dirt recovered from blasts, and keep any gems they may find. And the best part is that the earth beneath Oceanview Mine is filled with a mineral called tormeline, with a large green outer ring, and a small pink center, resembling a watermelon. Jeff told us how to sift through the tailings to find watermelons and other gemstones.

[dirt rustling]

And you can see, shake it thoroughly where there’s no sand left in there, and the best little turmelines can often occur on this screen. 

[rocks mixing around]

You see how I’m working? It gets easier to work with once the big rocks are removed, and at this point, I’m gonna get into it with two hands, here’s some more ?? on quartz, little small green ones. Some of these could even be watermelons, it’s got a little light. Yeah, watermelons on these quartzes are fairly common. Watermelon tourmaline .. pink center and a green rind. Nature did that, go figure. How? 

Watermelon hunting, gemstone finding, and tunnel blasting are awesome. And it seems that Peter Rennec, one of the miners on the coast agrees. He gets so into it he forgets about everything else sometimes. 

You know I’m prospecting and digging away and just so concentrated on what I’m doing, and didn’t realize things that are right behind me. Y’know, there’s a big snake or I’d have a couple of scorpions on my back. A friend would say “hey, you got a couple scorpions on your back” and little things. They wouldn’t kill you, but they’d make you sick, probably. 

Peter is definitely not the only mine worker who absolutely loves what he does. Almost every miner we talked to, whether they mined commodities or gemstones, had similar feelings. 

I like wearing blue jeans and boots and getting my hands dirty. You can definitely do that out here.

It’s all part of the fun excitement, the adventure. 

The adventure is my office.

Really like the 

Makes me not be stuck in a desk office, which is not where I want to be at all. I want to be outside.

I like having the being outside, work with my hands.

I couldn’t enjoy anything more than the work that I do. 

It’s just a love of doing it. It’s like a hobby. You know how some people have an expensive ship and they take it out every weekend? Well, we really love looking. 

You know, every day is a full-on treasure hunt. It’s pretty hard not to like it.

Not only do these miners love what they do, but they also seem to truly understand the importance of their trade. Many of the materials they retrieve are essential to global markets. But it’s so easy to lose sight of this when you’re not directly connected to the process. The average consumer is only concerned with the finished product, and why should they care beyond that? Dwight Bradley of the US Geological Survey puts forth a pretty convincing argument.

I guess the thing is, in general, most people are simply unaware of where anything comes from. Where does it come from? The store. Where does the store get it? The factory. And that’s just the way it is. But a hundred years ago, people were way more tuned into where stuff came from. 

So now, picture yourself in a mine. The sunlight illuminates the sparkling minerals, the trucks, miners, and intricate machinery synchronized and working perfectly. Because we need them to work perfectly. Behind every battery and bar of soap is a story. Do you know what that story is?

This was a production of Terrascope Radio, a class developed by the MIT Terrascope program in collaboration with the MIT program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is part of MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning. This piece was written, voiced, and produced by Dirk Stalliker, Holly ??, Katherine Buggs, and ?? We’d like to extend a huge thanks to our instructor, Ari Epstein, and undergraduate teaching fellow , as well as Terrascope administrator Deborah Axel. We’d also like to thank everyone whose hard work and meticulous planning made our trip a success, especially Professor Sam Bowering, Aaron Shay, and Annie Bower. You can find this piece, and more from Terrascope Radio, on the Public Radio Exchange at prx.org. Thanks for listening, and we hope you enjoyed the show!

[music fades out]