Communities Threatened by Mining Law
Soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals have triggered an explosion of mining claims in Utah that is encroaching on dozens of cities and towns across the state. Even the Salt Lake City metro area is threatened by a dramatic surge in mining claims with 323 active mining claims within five miles of towns that comprise the greater metro area.
The number of claims within five miles of cities and towns jumped nearly 150 percent between 2003 and 2008 from 2,786 to 6,793. Statewide, mining interests have staked more than 25,000 new mining claims since 2003, a dramatic increase that appears to be accelerating with more than 5,548 new claims in just the past six months. The 34,516 claims statewide as of January 2008 represents a four-fold increase over the 8,723 claims in the state just five years ago. Many of these claims are for uranium, which has left a legacy of cancer and contamination across the West.
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).
Thousands of Utahns live in 105 cities and towns within five miles of mining claims. These areas include retirement communities and tourist destinations that are almost certainly not prepared for a mining resurgence.
Communities in Utah with claims within five miles include retirement and residential communities such as St. George, Hurricane and La Verkin. Other such towns are located near the outdoor recreation paradise of Moab including Spanish Valley, a prosperous residential enclave, and La Sal. Bluff, which is known for its place in Mormon history and recreational opportunities, also has claims nearby. In the Provo-Orem metropolitan area, there are 164 claims within 5 miles of populated areas.
Many of these towns have seen nearby claims increase significantly in the last five years. Claims within five miles of Spanish Valley increased 18-fold from 14 to 256, while claims within five miles of La Salle (many, if not most for uranium) rose from 253 to a staggering 3,021. Claims within five miles of St. George rose more than 25 percent from 202 to 256.
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. Of particular concern to Utah is uranium mining that has left a legacy of cancer and contamination 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 Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico (Pasternak 2006).
Mining has caused some of the most extensive, severe, and longest lasting environmental damage in U.S. history. 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. 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).
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).