Communities Threatened by Mining Law
More than 150 years after the first Gold Rush, soaring prices for gold and other metals are spurring a new surge of mining claims in California—but this time, instead of bringing settlers to the frontier, the boom is encroaching on hundreds of crowded cities, sprawling suburbs and rural recreation havens.
Statewide, active mining claims within five miles of cities and towns have increased by almost one-fifth in the last five years, from 5,181 in January 2003 to 6,122 in January 2008. From the exurbs of Los Angeles to the rapidly growing Sierra foothills, millions of Californians now live in 293 cities or towns that are within 5 miles of mining claims staked on federal public lands.
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 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.
Nowhere in California is the new Gold Rush more dramatic than near the cities and towns of the Inland Empire. In the Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area, there are 1,698 claims within 5 miles of populated areas. Particularly threatened are the resort and retirement communities of the San Bernardino Mountains, where there are 222 mining claims on public lands within five miles of Big Bear Lake, up from 107 in 2003 and 269 within five miles of Big Bear City, up from 163 in 2003.
But other parts of the state are not far behind. More than 1,000 claims have been staked in the Sierra foothills east of Bakersfield, one of the state's fast-growing areas. Of the 10 California communities with the greatest number of active claims within 5 miles, five—Johannesburg (399), Randsburg (373), California City (287), Apple Valley (489) and Mojave (168) are in eastern Kern County. Claims in Apple Valley rose significantly—up from 356 in 2003.
In the northern Sierra, there are almost 500 claims within 5 miles of residential areas in metropolitan Sacramento, including Placerville (47), Nevada City (27) and Grass Valley (24)—all historic mining areas that have been transformed by an influx of high-tech industry and refugees from the high housing costs of the coast. Even Los Angeles is affected. There are 213 active claims within 5 miles of Santa Clarita, a northern LA County suburb of more than 170,000 people.
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, leaving local governments in a bind when they are threatened with unwanted mine proposals.
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. More than 150 years after the first Gold Rush, California is still dealing with its toxic legacy. According to a recent report by the nonprofit Sierra Fund:
The widespread distribution of toxins associated with the Gold Rush, including mercury, arsenic and asbestos, constitutes the oldest and longest neglected environmental problem in the State of California.
The continued presence of mining toxins perpetuates this devastation today. . . Sierra residents encounter elevated levels of arsenic and asbestos when recreating outdoors, excessive arsenic in groundwater, and high levels of mercury in fish. Native Peoples cannot practice traditional ceremonies or activities without risk. Since the Sierra is the source of more than 60% of California's drinking water, the entire state is affected by this pollution. (Sierra Fund 2008)
Mining companies argue that the industry is cleaner and safer than in 1849, but the record shows that not enough has changed. Mining remains the leading source of toxic pollution in the United States, and across the country, dozens of states and communities have been left with massive cleanups from closed or abandoned mines. What's more, as the once-wild West has changed, mining has become incompatible with some local economies.
The population of Grass Valley and nearby Nevada City, for example, has more than tripled since the last mines in the area closed 50 years ago. A proposal to reopen the historic Idaho-Maryland Mine has many residents worried.
"It's hard to imagine that tourists would want to come here with giant mining trucks rolling through town," local activist David Brownstein told The Wall Street Journal. Added Ralph Silberstein, a software engineer: "There's a gold mine here already and that is the beauty of this community." (Timiraos 2007)