Center for Biological Diversity

Public Lands Mining & Drilling

Center Campaigns

Zuni Salt Lake

Ray Mine Land Exchange

Oil & Gas Drilling in the Los Padres N.F.


More Information

Oil and Gas Accountability Project

GAO report - Better Oil and Gas Information Needed to Support Land Use Decisions

The Filthy West,” in High Country News. Article on the Toxic Releases Inventory, which has found Asarco to be the nation’s second largest polluter.

Trading Away the West”: Seattle Times Investigative Series on Land Exchanges.

"Mining of the West: Profit and Pollution on Public Lands"
Seattle Times Investigative Series on the 1872 Mining Law


August 6, 2003

The Center for Biological Diversity works to bring a halt to environmentally destructive mining and oil and gas drilling practices on public lands in the West.


For more than a century, irresponsible mining and oil drilling practices have taken a serious toll on the environment, ecosystems and animals, and human health—and continue to do so. The hardrock mining industry releases more toxics than any other industry in the U.S., including mercury, arsenic, lead, and cyanide. Water pollution caused by acid mine drainage, which leaches toxic heavy metals like lead, copper and zinc from rocks; cyanide spills; wildlife habitat destruction and fish kills caused by poisoned waters—these are but a few of the "side effects" of mining on public lands in the western U.S.

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, a single mine—the Cyprus Miami copper mine—unloaded twice as much toxic waste (123 million pounds) as all of New York State (60 million pounds).

According to the Mineral Policy Center, harmful 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 aquifers.

Oil and gas drilling on public lands also have devastating effects: air and water pollution, habitat destruction and fragmentation through road-building and infrastructure growth, and species endangerment. Saline-rich water discharged from oil and gas wells changes the chemical composition of soils and drastically decreases plant productivity. High volumes of water discharged into streams causes erosion and sedimentation that starve and choke fish and spread noxious weeds, and drilling can result in dangerous blowouts that can kill people, ignite fires, and contaminate surface drinking water. Roads built for oil and gas drilling increase human activity in formerly undisturbed areas and can result in an increase in poaching, roadkill and human-caused fires; they also promote the entry of exotic plant and animal species that outcompete and devour native flora and fauna.


Mining in the West, in particular, is governed by senseless laws that have not changed in more than a century—a century that has seen the development of a massive multinational mining industry with ruthlessly efficient mining technologies. Such growth could not have been foreseen when the law was originally written for individual prospectors out to stake a lonely claim in the wilderness. In 1872, when the law was passed, the federal government was pushing hard for white settlement of the West; the law was intended to 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 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 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.

Mining companies--both domestic and foreign--pay the federal government nothing for the more than $4 billion in minerals removed from public lands each year. Corporations claim 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. Yet while making this claim, hardrock mining companies routinely pay royalties to mine on private land, state lands, and even to sellers of federal land mining claims. In contrast with hardrock miners, coal miners pay a royalty; yet coal production has increased 40% since 1977.

The ecological cost of mining is far greater than any benefits that might accrue to the American people because large corporations can legally steal minerals from public lands.


The Center for Biological Diversity has been working for years to combat harmful public lands mining and oil and gas drilling in the western U.S. by challenging public land trades and other actions facilitating mining on federal property. Over the coming months and years, the Center will continue to review as many proposed mining and drilling projects on Western public lands as possible, and strategically target those projects that stand to do the most damage to native habitats and species.

Center's Mining Campaign

Center's Oil & Gas Drilling Campaign