Environment: Mining law overhaul is long overdue

The El Chino open-pit copper mine, near Silver City, New Mexico.

Record gold prices spurring new activity; watchdog groups say now is the time to update federal mining law

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — If federal lawmakers are serious about shrinking the budget deficit, they should be looking seriously at a proposal by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) that would make sure the oil, gas and mining industries pay their fare share.

Markey introduced his proposed legislation in the House Natural Resources Committee last week.

A key component of this comprehensive legislation would overhaul the General Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining of gold, copper, uranium and other metals virtually anywhere on Western public lands, with few environmental safeguards and no return to the taxpayers. Hardrock mining is the only industry that extracts resources from public lands that does not pay federal royalties.

Prices for precious metals are soaring, but the hardrock mining industry remains exempt from paying royalties for the riches it extracts from U.S. public lands, and from paying to cleanup the pollution from abandoned mines. Markey’s legislation to make the mining industry pay its share and clean up its messes was welcomed today by Western communities who live daily with the impacts of mining.

“With record-high metals prices and skyrocketing industry profits, it’s time for mining companies to pay their fair share,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks. “Reform of America’s antiquated mining laws to protect water resources, fund cleanup of abandoned mines, put special places off-limits to mining and make the industry pay taxpayers what we are owed is long overdue.”

Precious metals prices are higher than they have been in decades, and mining companies are enjoying astounding profits. Newmont Mining of Denver – the largest producer in the United States and operator of three mines that are among the nation’s ten biggest sources of toxic pollution – saw profits double from 2008 to 2010, to $1.8 billion last year. At Barrick Gold Co. of Toronto – the world’s largest gold producer, profits for the second quarter of 2011 were $1.2 billion, up 35 percent over 2010.

As mining companies rake in profits, they continue to be the nation’s largest source of toxic pollution – releasing 1.7 billion pounds of toxic materials in 2009, the most recent data available from the EPA.

The 1872 Mining Law is inadequate to regulate modern mining, which uses chemicals such as cyanide to leach metals from rock, leaving the landscape scarred with toxic tailings piles and pit lakes. According to the EPA, hardrock mining has contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of watershed in the West, and cleaning up the nation’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines will cost over $50 billion.

“Water is scarce in Nevada and other Western states, but the outdated mining law lets mining companies get away with polluting our most valuable resource,” said John Hadder, of Great Basin Resource Watch. He cited Newmont’s Lone Tree Mine and Mule Canyon Mine. Both have created pit lakes in Nevada contaminated with acidic water, that will require long-term treatment.

In Montana, the proposed Rock Creek mine, a copper-silver mine that would tunnel underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, is expected to generate water pollution in perpetuity.

“It’s completely irresponsible for this industry to operate under a 139-year-old law that leaves communities to deal with lasting pollution,” said Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance, a group of businesses and concerned citizens near the proposed Montana mine.

Throughout the West, Native American communities have long felt the destructive effects of uranium mining. In the last decade, uranium prices have risen from $10 per pound to around $50, leading to renewed interest from mining companies.

Several companies have proposed new uranium mining projects that threaten Mt. Taylor, N.M., a mountain that is sacred to a number of New Mexico and Arizona tribes. Because the 1872 Mining Law gives mining the highest priority for use of public lands, mines are permitted regardless of conflicts with other uses and values.

“There are some places, sacred places such as Mt. Taylor, that just shouldn’t be mined,” said Nadine Padilla, who is Navajo and an organizer with the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment in Albuquerque, N.M. “We need a modern mining law that can balance mining with other uses of public land and protect us from the potentially deadly impacts of uranium mining.”

These legislative changes will bring mining on public lands into the 21st century by:

·       Setting strong standards to protect precious water resources from toxic mine waste;

·       Imposing a federal royalty to compensate U.S. taxpayers for extracting valuable minerals from public lands; and

·       Protecting special places by allowing officials to deny mines that threaten clean water, important wildlife and fisheries, recreation and other values.

·       Require hardrock mining companies to pay reclamation fees into a fund to cleanup abandoned mines, similar to the fees already required of coal mining companies.

3 thoughts on “Environment: Mining law overhaul is long overdue

  1. For a country in dire need of jobs and an economic stimulus, an article so strongly biased and negative serves little purpose in a news source of some reputation.
    Semantics of the word toxic, properly used in the same context, would include all garbage of all sorts produced by everyone in the country, and indeed every pound of material of any sort that is moved from its original position. Of course we choose to not so define our everyday waste but castigate an industry for every pound of rock moved to create materials for our everyday high quality of life in an industrialized and populated country.
    If profits were to be expressed in return on capital then there would be a meaningful manner in which to compare and comment. Total figures are meaningless and dangle in space. All public companies are widely held and generally form the basis of everyone’s mutual fund and pension fund portfolio as well as the foundation for all insurance systems.
    Everyone needs to look in the mirror and recognize “us” — the everyday consumer who has requested production of our raw materials for our everyday needs and wants.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I think we all understand that we need mining to provide us with basic raw materials, and your last sentence gets to the point. We are all over-consuming well past our basic needs at an unsustainable rate.

      Most reasonable people aren’t saying that we should stop all mining everywhere, but that there should be a better balance between mining and environmental protection.

      Simply throwing the economy and “jobs” into every equation doesn’t really change the fact that our economy has deep structural problems. The boom-bust cycle typical of the mining industry isn’t going to help with that.

      If you look at some of the stuff in Markey’s proposal you might see that there’s huge potential for job creation in long-term remediation and restoration work.

  2. You can bet the ranch that the mining companies and their Republocon cohorts will fight this. Again, it points up that our elected officials are bought & paid for when it comes to which side they stand. There will be the standard snivel & whining about how many jobs there will be or will be lost if the effected parties have to pay royalty’s to the Government. After all, this is the era of greed, get it while you can, how dare the taxpayer demand that the mining co’s pay for the mess they make. Like spoiled brat kids, they cry that in the past, someone else-(the taxpayers)-cleaned up after they left, so why should they start paying today or tomorrow? After all, they can just take their marbles and go to some other friendly country where they bribe the government. Again, damn be the environment and all those who protest.

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