Communities Threatened by Mining Law
An explosion of mining claims in Nevada is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns including the fast-growing Las Vegas metro area, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.
Statewide, active mining claims within five miles of cities and towns increased 73 percent since 2003 from 5,784 to 9,991. From historic mining areas to fast growing residential communities, hundreds of thousands of Nevadans live in 58 cities and towns within five miles of mining claims. Mining interests have staked more than 5,800 active claims within five miles of residential areas in the Las Vegas metro area.
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 (EPA TRI 2008).
The Las Vegas metro area is of particular concern due to years of population growth that is now colliding with increased claim staking. Lake Mead, Las Vegas's main water supply, has dropped to 48 percent capacity, and there are serious concerns over significant water shortages in the near future (Villano 2008). The consequences of mining for Las Vegas' water supply Ð whether contamination or simply increased consumption Ð could be economically catastrophic and a major threat to public health.
Boulder City, the gateway to Hoover Dam, has 299 claims within five miles, up from 283 in 2003. Claims within five miles of the bedroom community of Fernley near Reno have more than doubled from 135 to 296 while claims within five miles of Silver Springs have increased even more rapidly from 214 to 526. Claims within five miles of Beatty have more than doubled from 414 to 1,049. Within five miles of Dayton, near Carson City, claims have surged from 351 to 527.
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. 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).
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. 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 (Kafka 2008, Brokaw 2000).