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1. What information is covered in this database?

Through the use of Google Maps satellite images, viewers can see the location and scope of metal mines on federal land in the Western U.S. Metal mines are some of the world's most destructive and polluting industrial facilities. For seven straight years (1998-2004), ever since it was first included in EPA's toxic pollution inventory, metal mining has been the United States' leading industrial source of toxic pollution. The database also allows viewers to see the location and ownership of mining claims, plans, notices, and pending patents on federal land in the Western U.S. (terms are explained below). Some of these sites may become mines in the future. Viewers can search by company, individuals, state and county.

2. How was the database assembled?

The database is based largely on information contained in a Bureau of Land Management database called "Legacy Rehost 2000" or LR2000. This database contains the location and ownership of every mining claim on federal land in the Western U.S. including BLM land and Forest Service land. The database also includes the location and ownership of every mining plan and notice on BLM land in the Western U.S. It does not, however, contain any information about mining plans on Forest Service land in the Western U.S. Forest Service lands cover millions of acres and mining plans must be completed before a mine can operate. Therefore, it is often essential to know where a plan is located in order to find a mine. While we have attempted to include the location of mines on Forest Service lands from other sources, the absence of Forest Service plans in BLM's database makes the listing of mines and plans on Forest Service land incomplete.

3. Who funded this database?

The Environmental Working Group would like to thank the dedicated foundations whose support made this project possible: New-Land Foundation, Rockefeller Family Foundation, and Wilburforce Foundation. The opinions expressed in this database are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the supporters listed above. EWG is responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation contained in this database.

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4. What is a claim?

A mining claim gives a company or individual the right to mine metals on a parcel of public land defined by posts driven into the ground in the corners of the parcel by the claimholder. The physical boundaries of the claim are described in a claim form filed with the appropriate local government and Bureau of Land Management offices (43 CFR 3832.11, 3832.12). The total federal fee to record a mining claim is $165 on a parcel that can range in size from about 20 acres to as large as 160 acres (not including local filing fees) (43 CFR 3000.12, 3830.21).

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5. What can a claimholder do on a claim?

A claimholder may conduct mining or milling on a claim but may not use it for other purposes. A claim allows the holder to use as much of the surface land encompassed by the claim as is reasonably necessary for mining and milling purposes (BLM Mining Claims 1996).

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6. What is a patent?

A patent gives a claimholder outright ownership of the land encompassed by a claim (30 USC 29). Prior to 1994, patents could be purchased from the U.S. government for $2.50 an acre or $5.00 an acre, fees established by the antiquated 1872 mining law (43 CFR 3863.1). In 1994, Congress prohibited the granting of new patents to prevent taxpayers from suffering the loss of millions of dollars in valuable land and minerals. This prohibition remains in effect (Pub. L. No. 109-54 § 408 (a) (2006)).

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7. What are pending patents?

Pending patents are patents for which applications were submitted before the prohibition. These patents have not yet been granted. The federal government may approve these patents in the future for the rock bottom price of $2.50 or $5.00 per acre.

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8. What is a plan?

Before opening or expanding a mine on BLM or Forest Service land, mining companies submit a plan of operations to the federal government that must be approved before operations begin. A plan must include detailed information including water management plans, spill contingency plans and reclamation plans. BLM will review a plan within 30 days and then, if the plan is complete, will accept public comment for at least another 30 days. Finally, BLM is authorized to approve the plan, approve it with changes, or reject the plan. The Forest Service has similar though not identical regulations (43 CFR 3809.11, 3809.400-434, 36 CFR 228.4).

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9. Can the federal government reject a mine plan?

Yes. The BLM is required by law to prevent "unnecessary or undue degradation" of public lands. The Forest Service's authority is less clear, but the Service is required to "minimize adverse environmental impacts." In practice, however, the federal government has only once denied a mining plan based on risks posed to the public, the environment, or cultural resources, and that decision has been rescinded. The government can also stop a mine based on violations of federal statutes such as the Clean Water Act and it can challenge the validity of claims on which a mining plan is based but, in general, the federal government has favored mining on public lands above other values (Mineral Policy Center v. Norton 292 F. Supp. 2d 30 (2003), 43 U.S.C. § 1732(b)), 36 CFR 228.1).

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10. What is a notice?

All mining on U.S. public lands involving significant disturbance of land now requires a plan regardless of the site's acreage. A BLM notice must contain details such as a description of the activity to occur, a map of the activity's location, and steps the site operator will follow to prevent unnecessary and undue degradation. Unless BLM determines otherwise, exploration can begin 15 days after filing a notice with BLM. Forest Service notices require similar but not identical information (43 CFR 3809.11, 3809.21, 36 CFR 228.4). Prior to January 2001, mining interests could file a less stringent notice for operations five acres or less in size on BLM land. Since January 2001, mining interests can file a notice only for exploration causing surface disturbance on five acres or less of BLM land on which reclamation has not been completed. The Forest Service still allows a notice to be filed for small operations.

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11. Do mining companies pay a fair price to U.S. taxpayers for the metal they mine?

No. Unlike every other extractive industry operating on federal land such as timber, oil and natural gas, the metal mining industry pays no royalties on the value of the resources it extracts.

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12. Do mining companies receive a tax break on the metal they mine?

Yes. In addition to the waiver the companies receive on royalties, the companies are allowed to avoid paying taxes on up to 22 percent of the income they make from minerals mined on federal public lands. According to Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) who has introduced legislation to end this giveaway, repealing this provision would save an estimated $478 million dollars over the next five years. Feingold's legislation directs 25 percent of the savings from the elimination of this tax break to fund a new Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund. The Fund would pay for remediation of the damage left behind when mining companies abandon mines on federal public lands (26 U.S.C. 613, S. 534 (2005)).

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13. Do mining companies have to pay to clean up their mines?

Legally, companies are required to clean up their mines although these provisions are often vague. In addition, companies must post a bond in advance of mining to cover the costs of cleanup in the event the company intentionally abandons the mining site, goes bankrupt or is otherwise unable to fulfill its duties. Cleanup costs can exceed $100 million. Historically, however, companies have often disappeared or gone bankrupt and the bond amounts posted have fallen far short of what is required to clean up polluted mine sites (43 CFR 3809.420, 3809.500-599, 36 CFR 228.8, 228.13, Earthworks Pollution 2003, EPA Summitville 2006).

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Bureau of Land Management. 1996. Mining Claims and Sites on Federal Lands.

Earthworks. 2003. Putting a Price on Pollution. Accessed online November 2, 2006 at http://www.earthworksaction.org/publications.cfm?pubID=8.