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National Analysis

Communities Threatened by Mining Law

Soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals have produced an explosion of mining claims across the West, encroaching on hundreds of sprawling cities, destination resorts, retirement communities and remote recreation retreats.

Since 2003, mining interests have staked 16,282 claims within five miles of cities and towns in twelve western states, for a total of 51,579 active mining claims within five miles of these communities as of January 2008. This claim boom near populated areas is part of a modern day land rush in claim staking. Active mining claims on public lands in the West doubled in the past five years, from 207,540 in 2003 to 414,228 in January 2008, according to an analysis of federal records by Environmental Working Group.

As metals prices rise, it is increasingly probable that some of these claims will be developed into mines, posing serious problems for residential communities. This prospect is made much more likely by the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, which does not provide citizens or government officials any way to stop a mine from being developed on any valid claims, short of buying out the claims or direct intervention by the Secretary of the Interior, a very rare event. A buyout assumes, of course, that the claimholder wants to sell.

The risk extends to all types of communities, large and small, regardless of demographics, income, or the nature of the local economy.

In the resort town of Created Butte, Colorado, there are 671 mining claims within five miles of the city limits. In Las Vegas, there are 5,822 claims within five miles of residential areas in the metro region. In Arizona, there are 5,131 claims within five miles of residential areas in the Phoenix-Mesa metro area. In Southern California, there are 222 claims within five miles of Big Bear Lake and 269 within five miles of Big Bear City, and 1,698 claims within five miles of residential development in the Riverside/San Bernardino metro area. In Idaho, there are 849 and 947 claims within five miles of the small towns of Wallace and Osburn, respectively.

Mining can do real damage to the resources, environment, and character of a community.

  • In Crested Butte, Colorado, the town pays more than one million dollars a year to treat drinking water contaminated by toxic mine runoff (Bernholtz 2008).
  • In Green Valley, Arizona, in August 2006, dust from a 400-foot-high tailings pile at Phelps Dodge's Sierrita Copper Mine spread over a two- to four-and-a-half-mile radius, coating homes and lawns with potentially toxic white powder (Davis 2006).
  • Nine miles northwest of Redding, California, acid mine drainage from the Iron Mountain Mine periodically releases toxic levels of heavy metals into the Sacramento River and has includely eliminated aquatic life in several nearby creeks. Roughly 70,000 people use surface water within three miles of Iron Mountain Mine as their source of drinking water (EPA Iron Mountain 2008).

Mining has been the number one source of toxic water pollution in the country for nine straight years - as long as reporting has been required - and this ranking does not include radioactive pollution and fallout from uranium mining operations (EPA TRI 2008).

Just about every Western state has a substantial number of cities and towns that are threatened by the potential for dramatic increases in mining activity nearby. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah have the most claims overall near populated areas, while Utah and Idaho have seen the greatest increases in claims near populated areas in the past five years.

Utah and Colorado have experienced the greatest increases in claim staking overall, with four-fold increases in both states, since 2003. In these two states a substantial portion of these new claims are for uranium, which has left a trail of environmental degradation and human health tragedies from past mining operations.

What most people in these communities do not know is that they are includely powerless to stop any one of these claims from turning into a mine. The outdated 1872 Mining Law provides no practical legal authority to stop a mine once a valid claim is staked. Instead, the law elevates mining above all other uses of federal land and contains no modern environmental protections, putting local governments in a bind when they are threatened with unwanted mine proposals.

Mining: The Nation's Top Polluter

Mining has caused some of the most extensive, severe, and longest lasting environmental damage in U.S. history. 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 $200 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).

According to the EPA, 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 $50 billion.

Perpetual pollution

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 have poisoned 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 this 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, New Mexico estimates that one acid-draining copper mine in the state will cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars to clean up (Infomine 2005).

The Special Dangers of Uranium

And then there is the specter of uranium mining. Increasing demand for nuclear fuel has triggered a boom in mining claims by companies planning to mine for uranium. EWG has identified hundreds of uranium mining claims within five miles of the Grand Canyon National Park, and last December, the U.S. Forest Service approved drilling for uranium just a mile and a half from the park boundary.

In making the approval, Forest Service officials noted their lack of authority under mining law to prevent uranium mining so close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, stating that under the 1872 Mining Act, "A 'No Action' alternative is not an option that can be considered (FS Grand Canyon 2007)."

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 the drinking water of millions of people. 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 to have unusually high rates of cancer they believe were caused by a now-closed uranium mill (Harmon 2006). And the Los Angeles Times reported in an award-winning investigation in 2006 how uranium mining has left a legacy of cancer and a degenerative disease known as Navajo Neuropathy on the Navajo reservation that includes parts of 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 or near cities and towns would be at best a reckless gamble-at worst, a tragedy that could turn treasured places into hazardous waste sites and put the health of thousands of people at risk.

The Price of Protecting Lands at Risk

Without proper protections for public lands and the authority to prevent mining operations that put communities at risk, the recent explosion of claims could be costly. One expensive option is to buy out claims located near communities 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. To date, however, these challenges have been rare and can also be very costly and time consuming. A recent challenge in Oregon, for instance, has already taken several years and is still not finished.


As metals prices rise, it is increasingly probable that some claims near cities and towns will be developed into mines, posing serious problems for adjacent communities. This prospect is made much more likely by the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, which grants special status to mining activities, and does not provide citizens or government officials any way to stop a mine from being developed on any valid claims, short of buying out the claims or the extremely rare case of intervention by the Secretary of the Interior.

Unless Congress acts to reform the 1872 Mining Law, towns across the West will almost certainly be harmed by future mining activity.

We urge Congress to enact these mining reforms:

End Favored Treatment for Mines: Currently, federal mining law grants rights to mines that supercede all other values and uses of the land. This special treatment must end and federal land managers must be both empowered and required to balance mining with protection of other resources, including water and air quality, wildlife, cultural and scenic values, and other unique characteristics that may be important to Western communities.

Protect special places: Mining is an appropriate activity in certain areas, but there are some places that should not be mined at all, such as land just outside the Grand Canyon, land outside other national parks and monuments and areas with scarce water supplies.

Protect precious water supplies: No mining should be allowed that will result in perpetual water contamination. The need to protect water supplies is particularly acute in fast growing western states with limited water supplies.

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.

Abandoned mine cleanup fund: Cleaning up abandoned mines is estimated to cost $50 billion. 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.

National Analysis

State Reports

Press Release

WESTERN METRO REGIONS AT RISK (claims within 5 miles)

TUCSON AZ (1,741)
RENO NV (613)

SMALLER WESTERN TOWNS AT RISK (claims within 5 miles)

La Sal, UT (3,021)
Carlin, NV (1,230)
Miami, AZ (1,226)
Marysvale, UT (1,149)
Osburn, ID (947)
Wallace, ID (849)
Albany, WY (847)
Claypool, AZ (796)
Safford, AZ (703)
Crested Butte, CO (671)