Communities Threatened by Mining Law
An explosion of mining claims in South Dakota is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.
Active claims statewide have increased by more than 138 percent since January 2003 when there were 1,030 active mining claims. As of January 2008 there were 2,452.
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 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).
From ski resorts to tourist destinations to residential areas, thousands of South Dakotans live in 15 communities within five miles of mining claims. Active mining claims within five miles of these cities and towns increased 40 percent since 2003 from 376 to 527.
South Dakota's second largest city, Rapid City, is threatened with 35 claims within five miles of its city limits. In addition, many South Dakota cities and towns have seen significant recent increases. Within five miles of Sturgis, home to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, claims increased from 4 in 2003 to 29 in 2008. Claims within five miles of Whitewood increased from 3 in 2003 to 24 in 2008. Other towns with significant claimstaking nearby are the historic tourist town of Deadwood with 52 claims and Edgemont, where claims increased from zero to 146. Many of the claims near Edgemont appear to be for uranium.
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 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 companies argue that the industry is cleaner and safer than it was, but the record shows that not enough has changed. In 1999, the Brohm Mining Company went bankrupt in South Dakota, leaving behind up to 150 million gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden water. The mine is now a Superfund site. The mine operator contributed about $6 million in financial assurances for mine cleanup but State Sen. Frank Kloucek recently put the total cost of cleanup at $150 million, most to be paid by taxpayers (Kafka 2008, Brokaw 2000). 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).
Of particular concern to South Dakota is uranium mining that has left a legacy of cancer and contamination across the West. The Los Angeles Times reported in a landmark series in 2006 how uranium mining has caused cancer and a degenerative disease known as Navajo Neuropathy on the Navajo reservation that includes Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico (Pasternak 2006). The Department of Energy has begun a project to clean up 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mine waste near Moab, Utah that has contaminated land near the Colorado River. The waste is a threat that could pollute drinking water for millions. Cleanup estimates range between $412 million and $697 million and, according to the Department of Energy, the project could last until 2028 (Gehrke 2007, Denver Post 2005, Fahys 2006).
Uranium mining companies have said that a process called "in situ leaching" will reduce environmental harm, but the practice raises significant concerns about contamination of groundwater according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In this type of mining, chemicals are injected underground to leach uranium out of subterranean deposits. While the USGS and NRC state that in situ leaching "in general" is less harmful than traditional uranium mining and milling, "the use of leaching fluids to mine uranium contaminates the groundwater aquifer in and around the region from which the uranium is extracted." The agencies add that "groundwater restoration represents a substantial portion of the cost of decommissioning at a uranium leach mining facility (NRC/USGS In Situ 2007)." A report for the Arizona Game and Fish Department found that all types of uranium mining can contaminate ground or surface water (AGF Report 2007).