1605 Ashio Copper Mine
Ashio Copper Mine
Ashio Copper Mine began operations around the 1600’s in Tochigi prefecture, Japan, and was originally owned by the Tokugawa shogunate, the last feudal Japanese military government.
The mine produced around 1500 tonnes of copper annually. However, output gradually dwindled over the years and was closed temporarily in 1800.
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In 1877, the mine came under the private ownership of a well-known Japanese businessman named Furukawa Ichibei.
The facility soon underwent rapid modernization during the Meiji Restoration, increasing the output of the mine as well as the introduction of refining capabilities and a smelter.
In the 1880’s, rich ore veins were discovered and production at Ashio increased to over 2200 tonnes per year, comprising 26% of Japan’s total copper production. This was significant at the time, given the fact most of Japan’s copper was exported, making up for 9.5% of Japan’s export earnings.
In the rush to bolster production, little, if any consideration was given to the environmental impacts created by the increased in copper production at Ashio.
From 1880, runoff from the mine and wastewater from the refining processes containing heavy metals, sulphur and other pollutants began to poison the Watarase and Tone Rivers.
The water changed colour and became unsafe for human consumption, and the fish population was decimated by around 90% leaving up to 3000 fishermen out of work.
The refining operations of the mine billowed emissions containing arsenic, sulphur dioxide and smoke, posing a serious hazard to the health of nearby residents, livestock, and the surrounding environment.
Large scale deforestation of the surrounding mountains took place to accommodate the expansion of the mine, providing timber for building and also as a source of fuel, leaving the landscape barren and prone to the effects of flooding. The vegetation that was left withered from the effects of pollution.
In 1890, a major flood swept contaminants from the slag piles, produced from byproducts of the mine into the rivers and onto surrounding agricultural land, rendering it sterile and unable to produce crops.
An even larger flood in 1896 exacerbated the problem, and the region began to suffer widespread food shortages.
In 1907, farming families from the Togichi and Gunma prefectures rioted, demanding the closure of the mine and compensation for loss of income, and an unusually dramatic appeal was made to the Emporer of Japan to resolve the environmental devastation that was destroying their livelihoods.
As a result, Japan enacted the Factory Law in 1911. The Factory Law was the first in the country designed to address industrial pollution; large factories were required to obtain approval before construction and factory inspectors had to conduct pollution control checks.
The law was largely ineffective in itself, but it did pave the way for several other laws related to environmental preservation in Japan, including the Forest Law of 1897. Law For the Protection of Historic Sites, Scenic Beauty & National Monuments of 1919. The National Park Law of 1931 and the introduction of a National Park System.
Ashio Copper Mine continued to operate until the copper lodes were depleted bringing the facility to a close permanently in 1973.
At its peak, the population of Ashio stood close to 35,000 with around 23,000 of those being mine employees and their families. The remaining 12,000 were subcontractors to the mine and local shopkeepers. As of 2003, Ashio was estimated to have a population of approximately 3,465.
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