“I just think this can be done better,” says Jack Jones as he looks over a stream trickling across smooth pebbles into the Pacific Ocean, backlit with the blazing sun in the final hours of daylight.
Squawking seagulls glide over the rumbling surf. Jones walks farther down the stream toward the ocean, pointing out black grains that top the ridges formed by swirling eddies. The grains have been carried from the ancient dunes that extend south down the coast. Topped with a forest of Douglas fir, the dunes are a natural habitat rich with wildlife and vegetation. Elk herds migrate through dune residents’ backyards. Streams extend far into gullies to the beds where endangered Coho salmon breed.
Jones has lived in the Bandon Dunes for twenty-five years enjoying the natural peace, but soon the rumble of industry will fill the salty air.
Jones serves as Bandon Woodlands Community Association president, a group formed to represent the 160 individuals who live on the land between Coos Bay and Bandon. The locals reminisce about hiking through the woods looking for mushrooms and listening to the gobbles of wild turkeys. Now, their activities have turned towards preserving the quiet environment. During the past four years, the Australian-owned Oregon Resources Corporation has been applying for permits to mine the dunes.
The black grains found on the beach contain chromite, plentiful beneath the Bandon Dunes, and shaped perfectly for industrial casts. With only one permit left to obtain, Oregon Resources Corporation is about to start the first mine operations and become the only source of chromite in North America. While nationally significant, the company remains much more important to the county and its citizens; the chromite is an economic hope.
The Bandon Dunes are part of Coos County, a county experiencing a 13 percent unemployment rate created largely by the collapse of the once-powerful timber industry. In the last year, the county has had to whittle away public works to balance a dwindling budget that reflects a region with few job opportunities.
Other sectors have suffered with the timber industry.
The port authority no longer handles a few hundred ships laden with logs that used the deep-water port in the nineties. Rusted tracks run along the water’s edge of Coos Bay, parallel pieces of steel nearly abandoned until the port authority moved to purchase the rail line.
Jobs are in demand in the coastal region, but there is nothing to support the skilled labor once hosted by the lumber and fishing industries.
Oregon Resource Corporation’s plan to operate a mine and a processing plant provides job growth to a declining economy. Huge capital investments, living wages, and seventy-five jobs have enticed the county commissioners into leasing county lands for mineral extraction. State representative Peter Defazio presented a $13.2 million grant to the International Port of Coos Bay to revitalize the rail lines that are essential to ORC’s shipments to the Midwest.
Industrial energy has started to awaken the sleepy coastal town.
Though a gleaming opportunity for county citizens, the locals who live near the proposed mine sites have spent the last three years placing obstacles in ORC’s permitting process. Fears of noise, dust, and groundwater pollution have driven them to critically question every detail of ORC’s mining plan. The greatest concern is the possibility that a toxic heavy metal called hexavalent chromium, the same material that was brought to the American consciousness by Erin Brockovich, could be introduced into their local wells, possibly introducing carcinogens into the local water supply.
In January, ORC will begin shipping the first sands from the Bandon Dunes to Coos Bay and a new economic era for Coos County will begin; but will it be the end for the people who live there?
Flux magazine plans to cover this issue as it progresses in 2011. While pushing the frontiers with new media, our writers and photographers remain committed to strong journalistic standards. As ORC’s processing plant comes on line, Flux will launch a detailed feature presenting the story with video, audio and text. Come back in the new year to experience this controversial topic explored through creative means only Flux can deliver.