Communities Threatened by Mining Law
Plans to build hundreds of nuclear reactors in China and India have fueled an explosion of uranium mining claims across Wyoming. This boom is encroaching on cities and towns statewide as soaring uranium prices stoke a global race to find uranium deposits.
Mining claims in Wyoming tripled between January 2003 and January 2008, from 13,710, to 41,780. Statewide, active mining claims within five miles of cities and towns increased 33 percent since 2003 from 2,584 to 3,446. Thousands of residents of Wyoming live in 51 cities and towns within 5 miles of mining claims.
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).
Claims have increased significantly near cities and towns in Wyoming's uranium country. Claims within five miles of Casper skyrocketed from 4 to 122 between 2003 and 2008 while claims within five miles of Douglas increased from zero to 155. Claims within five miles of Jeffrey City increased from 174 to 317 while claims within five miles of Bairoil surged from 24 to 165.
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. Uranium mining, of particular concern to Wyoming, has left a legacy of cancer and contamination across the West.
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)."
Historic uranium mining continues to impose heavy costs on the West. The Los Angeles Times reported in a landmark series last year 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).
Mining in general 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).