Unsustainable and destructive mining practices have had a serious impact on the environment, ecosystems and human health since the industry's inception. Hardrock mining releases more toxic substances — such as mercury, arsenic, lead and cyanide — than any other industry in the United States. And here are just a few other “side effects” of mining on public lands in the West: cyanide spills; wildlife habitat destruction and fish kills caused by poisoned waters; and water pollution caused by acid mine drainage, which leaches potentially toxic heavy metals like lead, copper, and zinc from rocks.
According to the Mineral Policy Center, damaging effluents from mines have polluted more than 12,000 miles of American rivers and streams and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs, destroying drinking-water supplies and crucial wildlife habitat and presenting a burgeoning threat to already overtaxed underground aquifers. Surging energy markets magnify these threats as the pressure to increase uranium exploration and mining mounts throughout the West.
The law that governs mining on public lands in the western United States hasn't changed in more than a century — a century that has seen the development of a massive multinational mining industry and modern technologies that could not have been foreseen when the law was originally written. When the General Mining Law of 1872 (“the 1872 law”) was passed, the federal government was pushing hard for white settlement of the West; the law was intended to facilitate prospecting and thereby encourage colonial expansion into arid, "empty" lands.
The 1872 law grants an absolute right to mine but sets no standards for prudent mine operations, mine site cleanup, reclamation or restoration, or financial responsibility. Despite being the largest U.S. producers of hazardous waste, mining companies have used their political clout to exempt themselves from most federal hazardous-waste laws. And even federal lands that are withdrawn from mining can still be developed if the mining company can demonstrate that it had a valuable mineral deposit at the time of the withdrawal.
Mining companies, whether domestic or foreign, pay the federal government nothing for the more than $4 billion in minerals removed from public lands each year. Corporations claim that the payment of royalties for minerals removed from federal public land would create such a financial burden that they'd be put out of business. While making this claim, of course, hardrock mining companies routinely pay royalties to mine on private and state lands, and they even pay to sellers of federal-land mining claims.
The ecological cost of mining is far greater than any benefits that might accrue for the American people. Large corporations can legally steal minerals from public lands, sticking taxpayers with the ecological and health impacts associated with mining pollution — in addition to the bill for cleaning it up. Given the tragic history of mining for people and the environment, the time for reforming the 1872 law is long overdue.
The Center has been working for years to combat harmful public lands mining by challenging public-land trades and other actions facilitating mining on public lands. As we monitor and review proposed mining projects, we strategically target and oppose those projects that stand to do the most damage to species and the ecosystems they depend on.