Communities Threatened by Mining Law
A growing number of mining claims in Washington are encroaching on more than two dozen cities and towns, including at least one recreation area, the result of soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals.
Active claims statewide have increased by more than 19 percent since January 2003 when there were 2,193 active mining claims. As of January 2008 there were 2,612. And the rate of claimstaking appears to be increasing. In the last six months, mining interests staked 120 new claims statewide.
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.
As of January 2008, thousands of Washingtonians lived in 29 cities and towns within five miles of mining claims. The number of claims within five miles of cities and towns increased from 388 to 405. Glacier, which provides services for the Mt. Baker ski area, saw claims within five miles more than triple from 11 to 36, while Metaline Falls has more claims within five miles (266) than its 223 residents.
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.
The University of Washington has found that "in Okanogan County, alone, there are more than 150 [mining] sites threatening human health and the environment" (University of Washington 2000). The Midnite Mine Site on the Spokane Indian Reservation, a former open-pit uranium mine, is on the Superfund National Priorities List, a list of the nation's worst toxic waste sites. The Silver Mountain Mine in Okanogan County, a gold and silver operation, was placed on the Superfund list in 1986 and removed in 1997 (EPA WA Superfund 2008). Behind Grand Coulee Dam, 26 billion pounds of waste from a Canadian metal smelter have contaminated Lake Washington with heavy metals that may cost $1 billion to clean up (Blumenthal 2008). The smelter is owned by Teck Cominco, a Canadian company that held 379 mining claims in Washington as of last July (EWG 2007).
Across the West, 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 (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).