Unsustainable and destructive mining practices have had a serious impact on the environment, ecosystems, and human health since the industry’s inception. Hardrock mining releases more toxic substances — such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and cyanide — than any other industry in the United States. And here are just a few other “side effects” of mining on public lands in the West: cyanide spills; wildlife habitat destruction and fish kills caused by poisoned waters; and water pollution caused by acid mine drainage, which leaches potentially toxic heavy metals like lead, copper, and zinc from rocks.
In 1998, Nevada mines — which topped the Toxics Release Inventory's polluter list — released about 1.3 billion pounds of toxics into the environment; one Nevada mine alone reported that it had spewed out 80,000 pounds of mercury, with over 9,000 of those pounds released directly into the air. In Arizona in that same year, the Cyprus Miami copper mine unloaded twice as much toxic waste (123 million pounds) as that released by all of New York state (60 million pounds).
According to the Mineral Policy Center, damaging effluents from mines have polluted more than 12,000 miles of American rivers and streams and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, destroying drinking water supplies and crucial wildlife habitat and presenting a burgeoning threat to already overtaxed underground aquifers. Surging energy markets magnify these threats as the pressure to increase uranium exploration and mining mounts throughout the West.
The law that governs mining on public lands in the United States hasn’t changed in more than a century — a century that has seen the development of a massive multinational mining industry and modern technologies that could not have been foreseen when the law was originally written. When the General Mining Law of 1872 (“the 1872 law”) was passed, the federal government was pushing hard for white settlement of the West; the law was intended to facilitate prospecting and thereby encourage colonial expansion into arid, "empty" lands.
The 1872 law grants an absolute right to mine but sets no standards for prudent mine operations, mine site cleanup, reclamation or restoration, or financial responsibility. Despite being the largest U.S. producers of hazardous waste, mining companies have used their political clout to exempt themselves from most federal hazardous-waste laws. Also, unless Congress specifically exempts a certain wilderness, national park, or wildlife refuge from new mineral claims, mining is permitted on these lands as well. Claims predating the withdrawal of land from mineral claims can be developed and mined if a valuable mineral deposit can be proven.
Mining companies, whether domestic or foreign, pay the federal government nothing for the more than $4 billion in minerals removed from public lands each year. Corporations claim that the payment of royalties for minerals removed from federal public land would create such a financial burden that they'd be put out of business. While making this claim, of course, hardrock mining companies routinely pay royalties to mine on private and state lands, and they even pay to sellers of federal-land mining claims. By contrast with hardrock miners, coal miners do pay a royalty to the federal government; yet coal production has increased by 40 percent since 1977.
The ecological cost of mining is far greater than any benefits that might accrue for the American people. Large corporations can legally steal minerals from public lands, sticking taxpayers with the ecological and health impacts associated with mining pollution — in addition to the bill for cleaning it up. Given the tragic history of mining for people and the environment, the time for reforming the 1872 law is long overdue.
The Center has been working for years to combat harmful public lands mining in the western United States by challenging public-land trades and other actions facilitating mining on federal property. As we monitor and review proposed mining projects on western public lands, we strategically target and oppose those projects that stand to do the most damage to species and the ecosystems they depend on.
Most recently, in January 2010, an appeal by the Center and a coalition of groups and individuals halted the expansion of the massive Black Mesa Coal Complex in Arizona. We also compelled the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a controversial water permit for the Black Mesa coal mine, which had been discharging toxic heavy metal and pollutants.
Also in 2009, we won a grand victory for the Grand Canyon when Interior Secretary Salazar announced a two-year halt on new uranium-mining claims and exploration on 1 million acres of land near Grand Canyon National Park, with potential for a 20-year withdrawal of those lands from most uranium mining. The announcement came after we sued Interior for authorizing uranium exploration on the same 1 million acres, despite a Congressional resolution explicitly calling for the withdrawal of those lands from new uranium development. Unfortunately, despite the Obama administration’s halt, the Bureau of Land Management approved the reopening of the defunct Arizona 1 mine within the specified 1 million acres. The Center sued the Bureau in November 2009.
In earlier anti-uranium action, in 2008 we sued the Forest Service for illegally approving up to 39 new uranium-exploration drilling sites near Grand Canyon National Park, reaching a settlement in September that required the Forest Service and the mining firm involved to withdraw drilling approval and undergo a full environmental impact statement process before making any effort to drill. In the summer of the same year, we filed suit against the Department of Energy over its decision to vastly expand its uranium mining program on 42 square miles of public land near Colorado’s spectacular Dolores River Canyon.
But the Center’s active opposition to destructive mining practices goes back much further than 2008. In 1997, for instance, we won an appeal of a Bureau of Land Management plan to sell 460 acres of land to Phelps Dodge for $400 an acre. The sale would have allowed the company to reopen its Lavender Mine outside Bisbee, Arizona. Also that year, along with the San Carlos Apache tribe, we appealed the trade of 3,600 acres of Bureau of Land Management land for 1,000 acres of Phelps Dodge land to the mining giant. The agency had refused to analyze the effects of future mining on the property.
Early 2000 saw an important victory for the Center, its allies, and the Mojave National Preserve when the National Park Service rejected an appeal by the operators of the Cima Cinder Mine to an order to cease all mining operations within the new Mojave National Preserve. The Park Service ordered a halt to all mining in August 1999 after the Center, Friends of Mojave National Park, and the National Parks and Conservation Association filed a formal notice of intent to sue on behalf of the Preserve. The mine had been operating illegally and without a permit since 1995.
In August 2003, we won a key victory at Zuni Salt Lake after 10 years of diligence. In a big win for environmental protection and preservation of sacred sites, the Phoenix-based utility Salt River Project announced that it was abandoning its plans to develop the proposed Fence Lake coal strip mine in western New Mexico, which would have provided electricity for the utility’s customers in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
In January 2008 we joined a coalition that filed what could be a path-breaking petition to revoke an illegal 1996 Fish and Wildlife Service order — technically a “biological opinion” — that gives coal-mining operations all across the United States carte blanche to hurt endangered and threatened species. Among other species, freshwater mussels in Tennessee and Virginia are in calamitous decline partly as a result of the order. We want the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining to be forced, once again, to meet its legal requirement under the Endangered Species Act to consult with Fish and Wildlife to assess potential impacts of mining actions on endangered species.