SPOKANE, Wash. - An industry that digs holes in the ground must adapt to new sensibilities in a dot-com world, mining leaders said Tuesday.
''The public's attitudes have changed, and our industry needs new approaches and new solutions if we are going to have a viable North American mining industry in the 21st century,'' said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association.
The association's annual meeting runs through Friday.
''We've got a lot of things right in the last decade, primarily on the economic side. We're producing metals at prices we never would have thought possible,'' said Joe Danni, an executive with Placer Dome America. ''The question is, how do we get it right on the social side?''
The extraction industry must find a way to integrate what it does with social and environmental expectations, said Danni, who chaired a session on sustainable mining.
''If we fail to do so, we will remain a controversial industry whose political minority status will eventually cause us to become irrelevant,'' Danni said.
''Mining in the dot-com world is kind of scary,'' Skaer said. ''As the American mining industry enters the 21st century, the winds of change are really blowing.''
But there is debate within the mining family over its place in society, said Dorothy Kosich, a consultant for Anglo Gold of South Africa, one of the world's largest gold producers.
''We don't all think the same, we have different opinions,'' she said. ''The public has a right to hold mining accountable.''
David Humphreys, chief economist for Rio Tinto Ltd. of London, said mining has derived legitimacy from different sources in different economic eras.
''Future legitimacy will rest on its contribution to sustainable development,'' he said. ''However, this is a complex notion, and particularly difficult for an industry involved with depletable natural assets.''
Mining corporations need to build broader constituencies than they have traditionally, he said.
Danni said mining's biggest negative legacy is its boom and bust nature, as well as what Skaer calls ''dirty pictures,'' photographs of polluted and abandoned sites used by mining opponents to sour the public's perception of the industry.
''In a social sense, sustainable mining is: you don't leave a hole in the ground when you leave,'' Danni said.
Many of the convention's scheduled sessions focus on reclamation issues, as well as public relations strategies.
The Northwest Mining Association was founded 106 years ago to represent the mining industry in the West.
Reflecting the state of the industry, the sessions this year are not sold out in advance, as they were from 1996-1998, when there was a waiting list to attend, Skaer said.