Communities Threatened by Mining Law
An explosion of mining claims in New Mexico is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns including the metro areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.
Active claims statewide have increased by 68 percent since January 2003 from 7,550 to 12,692. The number of claims within five miles of 62 cities and towns increased 33 percent from 1,075 in 2003 to 1,428 in 2008. And the rate of claimstaking appears to be increasing, with more than 1,300 new claims in just the last six months.
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.
Communities in New Mexico with claims nearby include the Albuquerque metro area that has 183 claims within five miles of residential areas and the Santa Fe metro area that has 168 claims within five miles of residential areas.
The historic uranium mining town of Grants saw a significant increase in claims within five miles from zero in 2003 to 163 in 2008. Claims have also skyrocketed within five miles of Capitan from two in 2003 to 103 in 2008, the result of claimstaking by Reno-based El Capitan Ltd., which describes its holdings as "one of the largest undeveloped, surface mineable precious metals deposits in the continental United States."
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 state of New Mexico estimates that one copper mine, the Chino Mine, will cost more than a quarter billion dollars to clean up (Infomine 2005). Of particular concern to New Mexico is uranium mining that has left a legacy of health and environmental problems across the West. The Los Angeles Times reported in an award-winning investigation in 2006 how uranium mining has caused cancer and a degenerative disease known as Navajo Neuropathy on the Navajo reservation that includes parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah (Pasternak 2006).
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).