A modern day land rush is sweeping the West, with mining interests and speculators staking thousands of claims that are encroaching on American treasures including the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Arches, and Yosemite National Parks. The United States' outdated mining law written in 1872 leaves these lands vulnerable to severe impacts.
A new Environmental Working Group analysis of government records shows that in 12 Western states, the total number of active mining claims has increased from 207,540 in January 2003 to 376,493 in July 2007-a rise of more than 80 percent. Between September 2006 and May 2007 alone, companies and individuals staked more than 50,000 claims (BLM 2007).
Many of these claims are for uranium, sparked by global demand for nuclear power. Government data from just four states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) reveal an ongoing surge in uranium claims from an estimated 4,300 staked in fiscal year 2004 to more than 32,000 staked in fiscal year 2006 (BLM Uranium 2007). Mining interests have also staked tens of thousands of claims for gold, copper and other metals, reflecting a worldwide demand for minerals.
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Thousands of the claims can be found at the doorstep of some of the West's most treasured places. For example, the explosion of mining activity threatens a crisis for Grand Canyon National Park, where companies and individuals have staked 815 claims within five miles of the park's boundary-805 of them since January 2003 (BLM 2007). Most of these claims are for uranium.
|Park or Monument
||Claims Staked Since Jan. 2003
|Arches National Park, UT
|Canyonlands National Park, UT
|Capitol Reef National Park, UT
|Death Valley National Park, CA and NV
|Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
|Great Basin National Park, NV
|Joshua Tree National Park, CA
|Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA
|Yellowstone National Park, ID, MT, WY
||Yosemite National Park, CA
|Zion National Park, UT
Overall, mining interests staked 4,708 mining claims within five miles of the 11 national parks and monuments analyzed, 2,901 of them staked since January 2003 (BLM 2007).
At least 18 uranium interests hold 1,053 mining claims within five miles of five different national parks: the Grand Canyon; Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in Utah; and Yellowstone. Ninety-eight percent of these claims have been staked since January 2003, showing just how vulnerable America's national parks and protected areas are to surging international metals prices (BLM 2007).
Mining's Special Status
Although mining is an appropriate activity in certain areas, there are other
places that should not be mined due to mining's significant impacts such as
lands near water supplies, national parks and other resources. Yet federal
land managers often believe that they have little choice but to allow mining
to proceed regardless of the costs (Leshy 1987, MPC v. Norton 2003).
Under federal law, a valid mining claim gives the claim holder the exclusive
opportunity to mine federal land. The executive branch has interpreted this
right as superceding other uses of public land including water quality,
hunting, fishing, wildlife protection, and other forms of recreation.
This interpretation means that even if the claims are immediately adjacent
to treasured places such as the Grand Canyon, it is extremely difficult to
prevent mining operations unless the government buys back the mining claims
or challenges their validity, typically at substantial taxpayer expense. The
special treatment mining receives under federal law also means that
speculative demand for nuclear fuel and other minerals in China and India
has more influence over the fate of mining in the American West than the
people who work and live there.
The Legacy of Uranium
Uranium mining presents special concerns because of its legacy of radioactive contamination, death and disease. Once active in parts of the arid Southwest, it is now costing taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
The Department of Energy has begun a project to clean up 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mine waste near Moab, Utah, that have contaminated land near the Colorado River. The waste is a result of mining operations that date to the 1950s and remains a threat that could pollute drinking water for millions. Cleanup estimates range between $412 million and $697 million, and the project may not be completed until 2028 (Gehrke 2007, Denver Post 2005, Fahys 2006).
Colorado's Grand Junction Daily Sentinel recently reported that residents of Monticello, Utah, claim unusually high rates of cancer they believe were caused by a now-closed uranium mill (Harmon 2006). And the Los Angeles Times reported in a landmark series last year how uranium mining has left a legacy of cancer and a degenerative disease known as Navajo Neuropathy on the Navajo reservation that includes Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico (Pasternak 2006).
Given the well-established health risks of uranium operations, mining for radioactive materials on the immediate borders of national parks would be at best a reckless gamble-at worst, a tragedy that could turn treasured places into hazardous waste sites.
Mining: Our Leading Source of Toxic Pollution
But the dangers of uranium are hardly the only problems associated with mining.
Metals mining is the United States' leading source of toxic pollution according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) - a distinction the industry has held for eight consecutive years (1998-2005) ever since mining was added to the TRI list (EPA TRI 2007). This ranking does not include radioactive pollution and fallout from uranium operations.
The EPA has also reported that more than 40 percent of Western watersheds have mining contamination in their headwaters (EPA Headwaters 2000). The total cost of cleaning up metal mining sites throughout the West is an estimated $32 billion or more (Duffus 1993, McClure and Schneider 2001).
Some of the pollution involved in mining stems from the use of dangerous chemicals. Mining companies commonly use cyanide to extract metal from tons of low-grade ore excavated in modern mining operations. In this process, known as heap leaching, companies excavate huge quantities of rock and earth filled with microscopic particles of precious metal. They deposit the earth on a plastic-lined heap leach pad and then spray or drip cyanide over it. 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. Cyanide and other chemicals can poison water, land and wildlife near mines (WRM 2004, USDOI and USGS 1999).
Most mining pollution, however, results from digging vast open pit mines that can exceed one mile in diameter and 1,000 feet in depth. When mining companies dig for metals, they expose sulfur-laden rock to air and water, resulting in the formation of sulfuric acid. The acid often drains away from the mine site into ground or surface water where it makes the water so acidic that fish and other organisms cannot survive. This phenomenon is known as acid mine drainage (WRM 2004, Durkin and Herrmann 1994). At California's abandoned Iron Mountain mine, for instance, scientists discovered the world's most acidic water with a pH of -3.6-10,000 times more acidic than battery acid (WRM 2004, Chui 2000). When the acid comes in contact with rock, it dissolves toxic metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, and carries those metals into water sources (Durkin and Herrmann 1994).
Once it begins, such pollution is very difficult to stop. In Europe, Roman mines are still draining acid (WRM 2004). Closer to home, the EPA wrote that Newmont's Phoenix proposal in Nevada "will likely create a perpetual and significant acid mine drainage problem requiring mitigation for hundreds of years" (EPA Phoenix Letter 2002).
Reclaiming acid draining mines after mining ceases is a huge financial liability. For example, the state of New Mexico estimates that one acid-draining copper mine will cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars to clean up (Infomine 2005).
And mining pollution often spreads far beyond the site of the mine. In Summitville, Colorado, in 1992 a spill of cyanide and heavy metal-laden water killed some 20 miles of the Alamosa River (EPA Summitville 2007, Kuipers 2003). The area is now a Superfund site that has already cost taxpayers $190 million to clean up (Smith 2007). The enormous Bingham Canyon mine in Utah has produced a 72-square-mile groundwater contamination plume (EPA Bingham Canyon 2007).
The Price of Protecting Lands at Risk
Without proper protections for public lands, the recent explosion of claims could be costly. One expensive option is to buy out claims located near parks or other treasured places. In 1996, for example, the federal government paid $65 million to buy out patented claims just three miles from Yellowstone National Park that would have been the site of a major gold mine. The mine would have been located at the headwaters of three streams that flow into the park (Kohler 2005, Drinkard 1997).
Short of buying out claims, the federal government could challenge their validity, arguing that they lack a valuable mineral deposit. However, these challenges can also be costly and time consuming. A recent challenge in Oregon, for instance, has already taken several years and is still not finished.
Then there is allowing mining to proceed under the current inadequate system. Already, a Canadian company, Quaterra Resources, has proposed to drill exploratory holes for uranium just north of the Grand Canyon. The operation would include a helicopter pad to carry supplies in and out (BLM Quaterra 2006). The idea of uranium mining near America's greatest national treasure is troubling, and the thought of helicopter flights of radioactive material in an area already crisscrossed by dozens of tourist flyovers a day is even more disconcerting.
The threat from mining that we face today is more serious than in years past because of the frenzy of speculative claim staking. The Grand Canyon and many other treasured national parks and monuments are at risk. Taxpayers may already be facing the prospect of expensive buyouts or even significant pollution from the new claims. Unless Congress acts, the damage could grow worse.
We urge Congress to enact these mining reforms:
- Protect special places: Mining is an appropriate activity in certain areas,
but there are some places that should not be mined such as land just outside
the Grand Canyon and areas with scarce water supplies. Mining's impacts are
so great that these treasured resources could be irreparably damaged.
- Royalty payments: Mining companies should pay taxpayers a royalty on the value of the metal they extract. Every other extractive industry operating on federal land pays a royalty.
- Balanced Treatment: Federal land managers should balance mining with protection of other resources, such as water. Currently, the government holds that the right to mine supercedes other values.
- 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.
- Tougher standards for mine cleanup: Mining companies should be required to prevent perpetual water contamination and put up enough money-before mining begins-to cover the full costs of cleanup should the company go bankrupt or abandon the site.
- 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 end this sweetheart deal.
- No more land giveaways: For years, mining interests have been able to buy claimed land from the federal government for $2.50 or $5 an acre. Since 1994, Congress has placed a moratorium on these giveaways that must be renewed annually. Congress should enact a permanent ban.
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