Driven by sky-high prices for gold and other metals, a surge in mining claims is threatening California's national parks, national monuments, wilderness and roadless areas. An Environmental Working Group analysis of government records shows 21,365 claims within 10 miles of these protected areas, with almost 7,400 staked since January 2003.
Within 10 miles of California's national parks alone, mining interests have staked nearly 3,300 claims, more than 1,000 of them in the last four years (BLM 2007). Many of these claims are in locations that would threaten or destroy critical water resources, landscapes, or habitat if developed as mines.
Metal mining is the nation's leading source of toxic pollution. Yet under the 1872 Mining Law, which is little changed since it was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, federal land managers feel they have virtually no power to stop mining once a claim is staked.
Although minimal environmental protections do apply to mines under state and federal law, the impact of large mining operations is devastating and typically far greater than those of other extractive industries like logging and oil and gas drilling. Huge open pits, acid mine drainage, air pollution and toxic water pollution are all too common. And other environmental laws provide little or no relief. The Clean Water Act, for example, provides no protection against depletion or pollution of groundwater, which are often major impacts of mining operations.
These inadequate legal standards leave land managers with unacceptable choices: allow mining to proceed, risking more disastrous pollution problems such as the acid mine drainage leaking into the Sacramento River from the federal Superfund Site at Iron Mountain, or take extraordinary measures such as paying $65 million to buy out patented claims near Yellowstone National Park in 1996.
Without new safeguards, metal mining could endanger California's most treasured places. If just a handful of the thousands of claims already staked turns into a major mine it could have devastating impacts on national parks and other highly prized natural resources. With metal prices soaring and worldwide demand for metals growing, the threat increases each day. Many smaller claimholders are responding by selling their claims on eBay and in other outlets where large U.S. or foreign mining interests could acquire them.
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The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to mark up comprehensive mining reform legislation on Thursday, October 18. The legislation represents the best opportunity in more than a decade to bring mining policies in line with the rules that govern other extractive industries on public lands.
Yosemite, other National Parks at Risk
EWG's data shows that as of July 2007, mining companies had staked 3,292 claims within 10 miles of California's National Parks, 1,093 of them since January 2003. A valid claim gives the claim holder the opportunity to mine on federal land. Mining is generally prohibited inside national parks with exceptions for preexisting claims. But claims just outside parks could have a significant impact on resources within the parks' boundaries.
Mining interests hold 285 claims within 10 miles of Yosemite National Park, 131 of them staked since January 2003 link to Yosemite. The top claim holder within ten miles is Troy Mining Corp. of Sherman Oaks, California with 78 claims, all of them staked in 2006. Twenty-eight of these claims are within five miles of the Park. The company's website states that "Troy Mining, Inc. is a California based company engaged in the acquisition, exploration and development of mining properties containing precious metals, primarily gold" (http://www.troymining.biz/).
Gold mining has been responsible for some of the United States' most catastrophic environmental disasters including Oregon's Formosa Mine that last month the EPA named a federal Superfund Site (EPA Formosa 2007).
At least one claimholder near Yosemite appears to have recently sold a claim. The sale of claims from small prospectors to larger mining interests is a common practice in the mining industry.
The Goldengirl Mining Company ("with over 150 combined years experience in the California mining industry, we can help with obtaining, maintaining or digging on your mining claim, call us!") displays on its website a photo of a beautiful mountain stream brimming with whitewater beneath the words "UNICORN/ACKERSON CREEK CLAIM NEAR YOSEMITE sold."
Other claimholders in California are currently offering their claims for sale (see sidebar) and some may be near National Parks or other treasured lands.
Mining interests have staked 2,176 claims within 10 miles of Death Valley National Park, 723 staked in the past four years.
The second-leading claimholder on the California side of the Park, Canyon Resources, has staked 238 claims within 10 miles of Death Valley National Park, 89 of them staked in 2006 within five miles of the Park (BLM 2007). Canyon Resources, a Golden, Colorado-based company, focuses primarily on gold and says that reopening its open-pit cyanide heap leach Briggs Mine near Death Valley "in light of today's gold market is Canyon's top priority."
Cyanide heap leaching is a technique in which companies extract huge quantities of rock and earth filled with microscopic flecks of gold, place the heap of materials on a plastic-lined heap leach pad and then spray or drip cyanide over the pile. As the cyanide trickles through the heap, it binds to the precious metal. The mining company then collects the metal from the cyanide solution in liquid-filled pits at the base of the rock pile.
The company says on its website that it acquired four areas near the mine that it considers "advanced stage exploration targets." The land is in the Panamint Range on the Park's western side. Canyon Resources said that it acquired two of these four areas in July 2006. These tracts may be the same lands claimed by Canyon Resources in BLM's records.
Canyon Resources has a history of pollution in Montana. Its Kendall Mine was permitted in 1989 and has exceeded water quality standards according to the EPA (EPA Gold 1994). Canyon Resources led an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to overturn a Montana state law, passed by voters in 1998, that bans open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining. Previously, the company sued the state of Montana for "taking" its potential profits due to passage of the law (McKee 2004).
The third-leading claim holder on the California side of the Park is Idaho-based Timberline Resources Corp. with 149 claims within 10 miles, all of them staked in 2006. The company issued a news release in July announcing its 70-claim "Santa Rosa Zinc-Lead-Silver Project" in Inyo County that encompasses Death Valley National Park.
The company's VP of Exploration, Paul Dircksen stated, "While we realize that significant permitting hurdles may be encountered because of its location bounded by and adjacent to a Wilderness Area, we believe that the opportunity presented at Santa Rosa is far too compelling to ignore. The strata-bound mineralization, along with the continuity and thickness of economic zinc concentrations, provide opportunity for a world-class discovery" (Timberline 2007).
It is unclear to which Wilderness Area Dircksen refers, but nearly 95 percent of Death Valley National Park is designated as wilderness (NPS Death Valley 2002).
Mining interests have staked 525 claims within 10 miles of Joshua Tree National Park, 207 of them since January 2003. Bullion River Gold Corp., a Reno-based company, holds 71 claims within five miles of the Park, all of them staked in 2006. Bullion River says on its website that it is "a mineral exploration company focused on discovering and mining gold and silver in the historically rich - and presently quite promising - western United States, including Nevada and California. Though less than three years old, we are poised to become a significant gold producer this year and into the foreseeable future."
According to the Business Press of Riverside, California, Bullion River said in 2006 that it would buy the Mission Gold Mine near Twentynine Palms just outside Joshua Tree National Park. The $1.5 purchase of the historic gold mine, from owner, TKM Corp., was expected to be completed by September 2007. Bullion River said that it would not use cyanide in developing the mine as is often the case with modern gold mines. Rather, it will grind the ore onsite and separate the gold from other rock using water and a shaking technique (Park 2006). TKM Corp. has staked 26 claims within ten miles of Joshua Tree, all prior to January 2003.
Mining interests have staked 14,487 claims within 10 miles of Wilderness Areas, 4,273 since January 2003. Wilderness areas are generally off-limits to mining, though claims are allowed inside the areas if the claims predated the Wilderness designation. Mining inside the Wilderness area is likely to be strictly limited. However, claims near a Wilderness area could have a devastating effect on the protected land. One of the Wilderness areas with claims nearby is the John Muir Wilderness adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park with 369 claims within 10 miles, 54 staked since January 2003.
Mining interests have staked 11,394 claims within 10 miles of Roadless Areas including 4,685 since January 2003. More than 1,400 of these claims are staked inside the Roadless Areas including 536 since January 2003.
In January 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Roadless Rule that prohibited "road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest" in roadless areas within National Forests that were inventoried by the Forest Service. These roadless areas encompass 58.5 million acres and are located within 661 of the nation's 2,000 major watersheds (CFR Roadless 2001, USDA FR 2001, 3244-3246).
"Roadless areas within the National Forest System contain all or portions of 354 municipal watersheds contributing drinking water to millions of citizens," the USDA wrote. "Maintaining these areas in a relatively undisturbed condition saves downstream communities millions of dollars in water filtration costs. Careful management of these watersheds is crucial in maintaining the flow and affordability of clean water to a growing population" (USDA FR 2001, 3245). The USDA also cited benefits for wildlife, outdoor recreation and protection against the spread of non-native invasive plant species (USDA FR 2001, 3245). For several years, the Roadless Rule was suspended by court challenges, but in 2006 a federal judge reinstated the Rule for all areas except the Tongass National Forest in Alaska (Knickerbocker 2006, Lipsher 2007).
Yet from the beginning, the Rule did not prevent mining and associated roads that could pose at least as much of a threat to drinking water supplies and other resources as logging and other road construction (USDA FR 2001, 3253). One of the Roadless areas with claims inside or near its borders is the Tahoe National Forest Roadless Area northeast of Sacramento. Mining interests have staked 2,469 claims within 10 miles of the area including 687 since January 2003. Of these claims, 322 are inside the Roadless Area, 82 of them staked since January 2003.
Mining interests have staked 264 claims within 10 miles of California's National Monuments, 29 of them since January 2003. Monuments are generally off-limits to mining with exceptions for preexisting claims. But claims outside Monuments could have a significant impact on land inside the Monuments' borders. One of the Monuments with claims just outside its boundary is Giant Sequoia National Monument, home to the world's largest living things, the Giant Sequoia trees that can measure 40 feet wide at their bases and 275 feet tall. Mining interests have staked 41 claims within 10 miles of Giant Sequoia National Monument, 19 of them since January 2003.
While many claims near California's treasured places may never become mines, it only takes mining on a small percentage of claims to create pollution impacts that can last a lifetime...or longer. Some of today's contamination from California's Iron Mountain mine dates to mining activity in the 1800s while pollution from Montana's Zortman-Landusky mine that dates to the 1990s may require perpetual water treatment. With claims encroaching on so many of the Golden State's most treasured places and a global land rush for minerals that shows no signs of slowing down, it's time to ensure that land managers have more than the legal equivalent of a pick and shovel.
We recommend several changes to the mining law:
- Protect treasured lands: Mining companies should be allowed to operate on federal lands, but some places should be off-limits. These places include lands bordering National Parks and Monuments; lands inside Forest Service Roadless Areas; and sacred sites.
- Tougher standards for mine permits and cleanup: Mining companies should be required to prevent perpetual water contamination and put up enough money before operations begin to cover the full costs of cleanup should the company go bankrupt or abandon the site.
- Treat Mining Like Oil and Gas: Land managers should have the ability to balance mining with other interests such as water quality, the same ability they have with oil and gas and other extractive industries.
- Royalty payments: Currently, mining companies pay no royalty unlike every other extractive industry operating on federal land. A fair return to taxpayers is essential for cleaning up abandoned mines and providing assistance for communities affected by the boom and bust mining economy.
- Abandoned mine cleanup fund: Cleaning up abandoned mines is estimated to cost $32 billion or more. Congress should create a fund to accomplish this important task.
- An end to mining's tax break: In addition to being able to mine royalty-free, mining companies can claim a tax break on up to 22 percent of the income that they make off hardrock minerals mined on federal public lands. Congress should close this loophole.
- No more land giveaways: For years, mining interests have been able to buy claimed land from the federal government for $2.50 or $5.00 an acre. Since 1994, Congress has placed a moratorium on these giveaways that must be renewed annually. Congress should enact a permanent ban.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 2007. Environmental Working Group analysis of Bureau of Land Management's LR2000 Database, July 2007 download.
Code of Federal Regulations (CFR Roadless). 2001. 36 CFR ¤ 294.10 et seq. (2004).
Federal Register (USDA FR). 2001. 66 FR 3244 (January 12, 2001).
Knickerbocker, Brad (Knickerbocker). 2007. Roadless Areas Get Protection - for Now. The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 2006, Pg. 3.
Lipsher, Steve (Lipsher). 2007. Roadless Rule's Revival Vexes Judge. Denver Post, June 10, 2007, C5.
McKee, Jennifer (McKee). 2004. Canyon Resources Looks at Cyanide-free Gold Mining. November 4, 2004.
National Park Service (NPS Death Valley). 2002. Death Valley National Park General Management Plan, April 2002, Introduction. Accessed online October 11, 2007 at http://www.nps.gov/archive/deva/Deva_gmp/DEVA_GMP.htm.
Park, Carol. Focus; Mining; Desert Gold. The Business Press (Riverside, CA). March 20, 2006.
Timberline Resources Corp. (Timberline). 2007. "Timberline Introduces Santa Rosa Zinc-Lead-Silver Project," PrimeNewsWire, July 25, 2007.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA Formosa). 2007. National Priorities List, Formosa Mine. Accessed online October 13, 2007 at http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/nar1761.htm.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA Gold). 1994. Technical Resource Document, Extraction and Beneficiation of Ores and Minerals, Volume 2, Gold. Accessed online October 13, 2007 at http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/other/mining/techdocs/gold.pdf.