Communities Threatened by Mining Law
An explosion of mining claims in Arizona is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.
Active claims within 5 miles of residential areas statewide have increased by more than 30 percent since January 2003 when there were 10,905 active mining claims. As of January 2008 there were 14,241 within five miles of 132 cities and towns. Statewide, the number of mining claims increased 93 percent between 2003 and 2008 from 22,711 to 43,924. And the high rate of claimstaking has continued in the last six months, when mining interests staked more than 3,200 new claims.
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 nation's 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. And a buyout assumes that the claimholder wants to sell.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just announced that, for the ninth straight year, hardrock metals mining was the number one source of toxic water pollution in the United States. In 2006 the mining industry released into the environment or disposed of 1.22 billion pounds of toxic chemicals, 4 percent more than in 2005 (EPA TRI 2008).
Mining claims are not limited to areas near historic or remote mining communities. There are 5,131 claims within 5 miles of populated places in the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area, 1,741 claims within 5 miles of metro Tucson and 725 claims near the Flagstaff metro area.
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 because the antiquated 1872 Mining Law provides no practical legal authority to stop a mine once a valid claim is staked. 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.
In December, the U.S. Forest Service approved up to 39 uranium drilling sites near Grand Canyon National Park, where there are now 1,130 claims within five miles of the park, most of them — if not all — for uranium. The Forest Service said that under the law it could not deny the claims, even if they threatened a national treasure.
"The 1872 Mining Law specifically authorizes the taking of valuable mineral commodities from Public Domain Lands," the Forest Service wrote. "A 'No Action' alternative is not an option that can be considered" (FS Grand Canyon 2007).
Another mine proposal that may be difficult to stop under current law is a plan by Canadian mining company, Augusta Resources, to operate a mine that would be located in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, an area that provides important recreation opportunities. The operation would sprawl over 800 acres -- an area that would include the mine, tailings piles and processing facilities (Ducote 2006).
Mining is Inherently Destructive
Mining sites feature giant open pits, dangerous chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid and acid mine drainage that can run out of mines literally forever, contaminating water supplies with acid and heavy metals. Uranium mining, of particular concern to Arizona, has left a legacy of cancer and contamination across the West.
The Los Angeles Times reported in a landmark series in 2006 how uranium mining has caused cancer and a degenerative disease known as Navajo Neuropathy on the Navajo reservation that includes Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico (Pasternak 2006). The Department of Energy has begun a project to clean up 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mine waste near Moab, Utah that has contaminated land near the Colorado River. The waste is a threat that could pollute drinking water for millions. Cleanup estimates range between $412 million and $697 million and, according to the Department of Energy, the project could last until 2028 (Gehrke 2007, Denver Post 2005, Fahys 2006).
Uranium mining companies have said that a process called "in situ leaching" will reduce environmental harm, but the practice raises significant concerns about contamination of groundwater according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In this type of mining, chemicals are injected underground to leach uranium out of subterranean deposits. While the USGS and NRC state that in situ leaching "in general" is less harmful than traditional uranium mining and milling, "the use of leaching fluids to mine uranium contaminates the groundwater aquifer in and around the region from which the uranium is extracted." The agencies add that "groundwater restoration represents a substantial portion of the cost of decommissioning at a uranium leach mining facility (NRC/USGS In Situ 2007)." A report for the Arizona Game and Fish Department found that all types of uranium mining can contaminate ground or surface water (AGF Report 2007).
Other mining threats to Arizona include Phelps Dodge's Morenci copper mine. The mining watchdog group Earthworks has estimated that taxpayers will face a $900 million cleanup for Morenci alone. Overall, the state's taxpayer-funded cleanup bill may approach $4 billion.
Mining companies argue that the industry is cleaner and safer than it was, but the record shows that not enough has changed. The EPA recently estimated the cost of cleaning up Nevada's Yerington copper mine at $50 million or more. The mine was operated as recently as the 1990s (Riley 2007, SNS 2007). Last fall, the EPA added Oregon's Formosa mine to the Superfund list. The historic mine was reopened in the 1990s, mined for two years by a Canadian company and then abandoned with catastrophic results. The mine's acid drainage has killed 18 miles of a creek where salmon once spawned and cleanup is expected to exceed $10 million, the Associated Press reported (Barnard 2007). In 1999, the Brohm Mining Company went bankrupt in South Dakota, leaving behind 150 million gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden water and an estimated $150 million cleanup. The mine is now a Superfund site (Kafka 2008, Brokaw 2000).