Communities Threatened by Mining Law
An explosion of mining claims in Colorado is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns across the state. Following on the heels of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals, active mining claims statewide have increased more than four-fold since January 2003, when there were 5,430 in the state. By January 2008, that number had skyrocketed to 23,473. And the rate of claimstaking appears to be increasing. In the last six months, more than 5,000 new claims were staked statewide.
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).
As of January 2008, thousands of Coloradans lived in 88 cities and towns within five miles of mining claims. These communities include ski resorts and residential areas that are almost certainly not prepared for a mining resurgence. Between 2003 and 2008, the number of claims within five miles of cities and towns increased 36 percent from 2,134 to 2,899.
Crested Butte is particularly threatened, with 671 mining claims within 5 miles of the town. Prosperous exurban communities west of Denver are also at risk, including Allenspark (84), Gold Hill (159), and Jamestown (156). Claims within five miles of Gold Hill almost doubled from just 82 in 2003 and 2008 while claims within five miles of Jamestown showed an even greater increase, climbing from just 61 in 2003. Other towns with significant claims nearby are Breckenridge (55), Nederland (142) and Telluride (36).
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.
The proposed Lucky Jack molybdenum mine one mile outside Crested Butte "will dump hundreds of thousands of tons of mine wastes and mine tailings into Crested Butte's watershed, disturb thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat, eliminate critical recreational areas from public use and essentially turn pristine National Forest lands outside of our Town…into a permanent industrial dump site," Crested Butte's mayor, Alan Bernholtz, wrote to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January.
"Under the federal government's interpretation of the 1872 Mining Law, the Forest Service is powerless to deny the Lucky Jack Project," Bernholtz wrote. "At best . . . the Forest Service can only "minimize adverse impacts," but cannot deny the proposed project to protect public resources and local interests (Bernholtz 2008)."
Bernholtz's comments echo the Forest Service's approval of up to 39 uranium drilling sites near Grand Canyon National Park in December where there are now 1,130 claims within five miles of the park, most of them – if not all – for uranium.
"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)."
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.
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). One of the largest Superfund sites in the United States includes the abandoned Berkeley Pit copper mine in Butte, Montana.
At California's abandoned Iron Mountain mine, 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).
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.
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).