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Communities Threatened by Mining Law

An explosion of mining claims in Idaho is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.

As of January 2008, mining interests had staked 2,733 mining claims within five miles of 47 cities and towns in Idaho including residential areas. The number of claims within five miles of cities and towns more than doubled from 1,336 claims in 2003.

Active claims statewide have increased by more than 44 percent since January 2003 when there were 10,598 active mining claims. As of January 2008 there were 15,223. And the rate of claimstaking appears to increasing. In the last six months, mining interests staked more than 2,200 new claims 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 (the proposed Atlanta Gold Mine upstream from Boise is perhaps the best example). 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).

Many Idaho communities have seen dramatic increases in nearby claims since 2003. Within five miles of Kellog, mining claims jumped from 171 to 418 claims, while claims near Mullan skyrocketed from 176 to 656. Within five miles of Osborne claims nearly doubled from 496 to 947, while claims near Wallace surged from 430 to 839.

Mining claims need not be located directly next to cities and towns to pose a problem. Boise, Idaho's Mayor, David Bieter and the Boise City Council have opposed a proposed mine 60 miles upstream that could contaminate Boise's drinking water. The mine, owned by Atlanta Gold of Canada, would be located near tributaries of the Boise River that provides 20 percent of Boise's drinking water (Miller 2007, FR 2003).

"The city of Boise has no jurisdiction over mining activities on federal land even when they pose an unacceptable hazard to human health and the environment," mayor Bieter wrote to Chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) whose comprehensive mining reform bill passed the House of Representatives last November (Barker 2007).

Originally, the mine was supposed to be a cyanide heap leaching operation a process banned by the state of Montana and a technique that has been responsible for some of the United States' worst mining disasters. Atlanta Gold recently announced that it would not use cyanide, would reduce the mine's size by switching primarily to underground mining and would use private land that had been patented or purchased from the federal government. But the mayor is still concerned due to the project's proximity to the river and use of diesel fuel that could contaminate drinking water (Dey 2008).

Like the residents of Boise, residents of other Idaho communities are includely powerless to stop 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.

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.

Idaho has one mining site on the Superfund National Priorities List, the list of the nation's worst toxic pollution sites, the Bunker Hill Mining & Metallurgical Complex in Smelterville. The state also has two mines or mining areas proposed for inclusion on the Superfund list, the Stibnite/ Yellow Pine Mining Area in Valley County and the Blackbird Mine in Lemhi County (EPA ID Superfund 2008).Across the West, 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. 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).

National Analysis

State Reports

Press Release


Communities in Idaho with the highest increase in claims within 5 miles since 2003

Place nameClaim increase
Mullan, ID480
Osburn, ID451
Wallace, ID419
Wardner, ID286
Kellogg, ID247
See full table

Communities in Idaho with claims within 5 miles (with 20 or more claims in 2008)

Place nameClaims
Jan 1, 2003
Percent increaseClaim increase
Mullan, ID176656273%480
Osburn, ID49694791%451
Wallace, ID43084997%419
Wardner, ID159445180%286
Kellogg, ID171418144%247
Smelterville, ID96219128%123
Pinehurst, ID28119325%91
Mackay, ID6812685%58
Horseshoe Bend, ID0370%37
Butte City, ID496737%18
Idaho City, ID405640%16
Boise City, ID183383%15
Placerville, ID11913211%13
Arco, ID476028%13
Emmett, ID22220%0
Lost River, ID2523-8%-2