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Communities Threatened by Mining Law

A growing number of mining claims in Montana are encroaching on dozens of cities and towns, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals throughout the Western United States.

As of January 2008 117,259 Montana residents lived in 48 cities and towns that were within 5 miles of 3,412 mining claims. Statewide, claims have increased 33 percent from 10,554 in 2003 to 13,992 in 2008.

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 valid claims, short of buying out the claims or direct Secretarial intervention, 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.

Within five miles of Phillipsburg, Montana's 1998 Tourism Community of the Year, claims increased from 5 to 51 between 2003 and 2008. Within five miles of picturesque Lincoln, claims increased from 25 to 92.

What most people in these communities do not know is that they are includely powerless to prevent 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

National Analysis

State Reports

Press Release


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

Place nameClaim increase
Butte-Silver Bow County, MT287
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, MT213
Lincoln, MT67
Philipsburg, MT46
Radersburg, MT45
See full table

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

Place nameClaims
Jan 1, 2003
Percent increaseClaim increase
Butte-Silver Bow County, MT40369071%287
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, MT160373133%213
Lincoln, MT2592268%67
Philipsburg, MT551920%46
Radersburg, MT8312854%45
Cardwell, MT18120614%25
Basin, MT2040100%20
Jefferson City, MT3293465%17
Clancy, MT3673783%11
Helena Valley Northwest, MT192953%10
Whitehall, MT1982064%8
Helena Valley Northeast, MT313410%3
Noxon, MT96982%2
Heron, MT29290%0
Neihart, MT2725-7%-2
Montana City, MT4644-4%-2
Townsend, MT174158-9%-16
Helena West Side, MT10382-20%-21
Helena Valley West Central, MT5632-43%-24
Helena, MT10377-25%-26
Virginia City, MT332159-52%-173